This week’s double feature is one that not only works perfectly but, is a lot of fun. It pairs Tim Burton’s first two films together, the hilarious and delightfully surreal Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and the supernatural Gothic laugh fest that is Beetlejuice. Both films would introduce the world to Burton’s cartoonish visual style and have gone on to become cult classics in their own right. When stacked up against his body of work, they still rank as two of his best. So crack open your favorite beverage and enjoy this double bill of offbeat hilarity.
PEE WEE’s BIG ADVENTURE (1985)
Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee Herman character became a sensation in the 80s. He started out as a more adult-themed comedy act and cable TV show and then became an all-out, though still pretty bizarre, hit children’s show. So, the transition to feature films was a natural and quirky new filmmaker Tim Burton was perfectly picked to guide Pee Wee to the big screen in this cartoonish and surreal adventure.
The plot is simple. Pee Wee’s prized bicycle is stolen and the strange man-child sets off on a cross country adventure to hunt it down and get it back. His travels lead him to some strange places, where he meets some equally strange characters as he follows a trail that takes him all the way to the Alamo and then eventually brings him to Hollywood.
Tim Burton was the perfect director for this project scripted by Reubens, the late Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol. It’s a colorful, yet bizarre, road trip populated by some very eccentric and equally colorful characters. And Burton’s Edward Gorey-ish visual style is perfect for the weird situations Pee Wee gets into such as his encounters with escaped convict Micky (Judd Omen), a rowdy biker gang, the phantom-like Large Marge (Alice Nunn) and the climactic chase through Warner Brothers Studios. Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman was brought in to score and his whimsical musical style was a perfect fit for the situations on-screen. Reubens, Burton and Elfman where so perfectly matched here, it’s sad the three have never, at least so far, collaborated again on another movie, unless you count Reubens’ small role in Batman Returns. Burton brings a sense of whimsy to the proceedings and has no problem indulging in the surreal such as two amusing nightmare sequences where Pee Wee fears about the fate of his bike. The FX are simple and quaint and even involve a little stop-motion animation and it adds to the film’s charm which it has lots of. It gives the film an almost demented fairly tale vibe at times, which fits the universe Reubens has already created for his character.
The cast have a lot of fun with this, too. Reubens is at his Pee Wee best and his reactions to things, such as his impatience with The Alamo tour guide, Tina are just as hysterical as is the broader physical comedy. 80s cutie and icon E.G. Daily plays the only, fairly down to earth character in the film, bike shop repair girl Dottie, who crushes on the reluctant Pee Wee. The rest of the characters are all cartoonish such as spoiled brat and bike theft suspect Francis (Mark Holton) and of course, Lou Cutell as Amazing Larry. And the actors all have a lot of fun with their over the top screen personas. Burton gets good work out of everyone for the gallery of oddball characters that inhabit Pee Wee’s world.
Pee Wee’s Big Adventure is a comedy classic and rightfully so. It’s delightfully offbeat and amusingly surreal at times and Burton was the perfect choice to bring Pee Wee’s off-kilter world to the big screen. The movie is incredibly quotable and I still laugh heartily when I watch it all these years later and it definitely is one of my all time favorite comedies. And if that makes me a geek, fine… I know you are but, what am I ?
3 and 1/2 Pee Wees!
Burton’s sophomore feature teamed him with another comic icon Michael Keaton, in this tale that puts a spin on the traditional haunted house story by having the ghosts trying to remove the humans from their house and not the other way around… and turning in desperation to the demonic bio-exorcist Beetlejuice (Keaton) for help.
The story has young couple Barbara (Geena Davis) and Adam (Alec Baldwin) Maitland, living a peaceful life in their large house in a remote New England town… until a horrible accident brings about their premature demise. But, things get worse for the dearly departed couple when, as they try to adjust to their new after-life, their home is invaded by the new owners, the new age Deetz family, Charles (Jeffery Jones), Delia (Catherine O’Hara) and their Goth emo daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). With their gaudy interior decorator Otho (Glenn Shadix) in tow, they begin to completely remodel the Maitland’s house. The ghostly couple try to haunt the new family out but, only wind up intriguing them and in desperation, they turn to the demonic entity known as Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton) to evict the Deetzes from their home. But, they have started to bond with Lydia and realize all too late that the funky phantom they have unleashed has a far more sinister agenda and becomes a far worse problem then the Deetzes and their plans to turn the house into a paranormal sideshow attraction.
Written by Warren Skaaren and Michael McDowell from a story by McDowell and Larry Wilson, this was another film perfectly suited to Burton’s gothic, offbeat visual style and his quirky sense of whimsy. Burton really gets to have some surreal visual fun with his presentations of the afterlife and in the design of some of the supernatural beings that inhabit it. His teaming with Keaton is also perfect as the actor gets to really chew up the scenery as the bizarre and slightly perverse Beetlejuice. The character comes across less an actual demon than your creepy, pervy, alcoholic uncle… on crack… and that’s kinda what makes it work. Keaton is completely over the top and it fits Burton’s over the top style directing style very well. While not all the bits work, most do and the film is not only flat out hysterical at times but, whimsically spooky at others. The climactic last act when Beetlejuice is loosed on the Deetzes dinner party and trying to wed Lydia so he can remain corporeal is an amusement park ride, almost literally, and it makes it worth the wait to see him finally and fully unleashed. The film also makes it’s ghost characters, The Maitlands, the only normal people in the movie which adds to the turning the traditional haunting premise on it’s head. The film is a lot of fun and Burton imbues it with some nice sentimental moments too. Here he still knew when to temper the outlandish with the subtle, something some of his recent films seem to have lost. The FX here are very inventive and not only include some very bizarre make-up and prosthetics but, some charming stop-motion animation as well. A time before CGI and it’s all the more charming for it. Despite a modest budget the quaint FX enhance the film’s atmosphere and add to the fun. Again Danny Elfman was brought into score and again his music fits the film like a spooky glove.
As for the human cast elements, despite not having as much screen time as you might think, it’s Keaton’s show and he takes the demonic ball and runs with it. He is completely and unapologetically over the top as the perverted and devious oddball demon that is Beetlejuice. He has a lot of great bits to chew on and while not every line is knee-slapping, Keaton gives them his all anyway and the film would not have worked so well without him. Davis and Baldwin make a very endearing couple of ghosts and they have a really great chemistry together and with Ryder. The fact that they are played as the most normal characters in the film adds to the charm and they both give very down to earth performances… pun intended. It really works as a nice contrast to the eccentric Deetzes and their weird friends and, of course, Beetlejuice himself. And as the Deetzes there is also a nice contrast here with Jeffery Jones’ more down to earth real estate developer and Catherine O’Hara’s delightfully eccentric new age sculptor wife. Add in the adorably gloomy Lydia brought to life by a cute, young Winona Ryder and the obnoxious and self centered Otho, made all the more amusing by a scenery chewing Glenn Shadix (who sadly passed away in 2010 due to injuries sustained in a fall in his home). A very well cast comedy with some very talented people doing what they do best.
I love this movie. Sure, not all the bits work and a slightly tighter script could have made it even more of a tour de force for the eclectic cast but, with Keaton creating an iconic character and some truly inventively designed otherworldly characters and sequences, you get a very original and now classic comedy and a film that is still, in my opinion, one of both Burton’s and Keaton’s best. A delight even close to 30 years later. Also features cameos by Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.
3 and 1/2 Beetlejuices!