I’m a Loner Dottie, A Rebel: Looking Back at Pee-wee’s Influence on Cinema in Anticipation of His Upcoming Netflix Project

pee wee big a

There’s a new Pee-wee Herman film in the works — and Judd Apatow is going to produce it.

This could be a triumphant return to form for Paul Reubens, whose achievements were, at one point eclipsed by scandal. And we’re hoping the new film be as forward-thinking and influential as Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. 


Before Pee-wee creator Paul Reubens and Burton teamed up, Reubens was an aspiring comic working with the improvisational comedy group, The Groundlings. After a successful improv session in 1978 where Reubens pretended to be an inept comic in a club, he fleshed out the character of Pee-wee with the help of fellow Groundling, Phil Hartman. Over time, the character became a freakish (but nevertheless charming) man child, who collected vintage toys and reveled in campy absurdity.

Big Adventure’s Lasting Influence

Thanks to a special that aired on HBO in 1981, and regular appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, Pee-wee became popular enough to warrant a feature length film.

Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was released in 1985 and ultimately became a cult favorite. It was notable as the first feature film from director Tim Burton, and you can clearly see, within the film, elements that Burton has repeated time and time again. There’s the animated sequences, including the scene with the trucker Large Marge which called to mind special effects from Beetlejuice, and stop-motion animated segments with Dinosaurs that evoke Ray Harryhausen.

There is also the unforgettable soundtrack by Danny Elfman. In fact – this was one of the first times that Elfman had scored a large-budgeted feature film (although he had worked previously on one of his brother’s films, entitled The Forbidden Zone). If it hadn’t been for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Elfman might not have scored all of Burton’s other films, and it’s also possible that he wouldn’t have gone on to score “The Simpsons.”

There are countless comedies that have borrowed thematic and aesthetic influences from the film, from the Burton-produced Cabin Boy (with its animations and eccentric hero who has to prove himself in a hyper-macho environment) to Billy Madison (in so far as that the hero is depicted as a hyperactive, psychologically regressive man-child).

Burton also exploits the inherent weirdness of the Pee-wee character. A recurring theme in all of Burton’s films is the benevolent strange character, who is eager to please and just can’t seem to fit in anywhere. You can recall how Burton handled this in A Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. It’s interesting to see how Burton embraces Pee-wee as this archetype. Edward Scissorhands in suburban California is strange enough, but even stranger is Pee-wee interacting with people in small town Texas.

The film followed Pee-wee Herman as he tried to win back his stolen bicycle from his jealous neighbor, Francis Buxton. Pee-wee embarks on an adventure that takes him across the country. It has some of the zaniness and physical comedy from Zucker Brothers films, but it also borrows from the influence of slapstick comics such as Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. The film also takes everything to an even more exaggerated and imaginative level.

Burton’s Influence on Pee-wee

In a lot of ways, the film also set the stage for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, which was sort of like Howdy Doody on amphetamines. The show aired on CBS from 1986 to 1990, and even garnered a few Emmy’s. In the show, Pee-wee plays in a house full of talking furniture, gadgets and toys as he learns about the world around him. There are several animated interstitials in the show, which must have borrowed from the influence of Tim Burton’s films, but also from Reuben’s interests in classic children’s TV programming.

Big Top Pee-wee, a direct sequel to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, was released in 1988 and tells the story of Pee-wee’s attempt to join the circus after he falls in love with a trapeze artist. While the film has it’s charms, it falls short of its predecessor.

Pee-wee’s Return

The announcement of the upcoming film, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, has renewed excitement over the Pee-wee franchise. Pee-wee’s Playhouse has been drawing a large viewership through Netflix streaming and DirectTelevisionSpecials.net service, and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is watchable through Amazon Prime. How will this new film follow up?

Paul Reubens has stated in recent interviews that the film will follow Pee-wee as he takes a road trip across the country. Just as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure appealed to people of all ages, Reubens believes that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday will be a hit with both young and old fans.  We’ve got high hopes and look forward to seeing the newest addition to the Pee-wee family.

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Kate Voss
Kate Voss
Kate Voss is a blogger in Chicago whose chief interests include film, music, and boating. Follow her on Twitter @kateevoss