Big Top Pee-wee

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: Pee-Wee Herman’s world is turned upside-down when a circus troupe lands on his farm during a storm. Not only do the animals cause havoc with the livestock – a hippo taking a particular interest in Herman’s buddy Vance – but trapeze artist Gina plays havoc with Pee-Wee’s heart, much to the dismay of his intended, Winnie.

Neither Paul Reubens nor his extraordinary creation Pee-Wee Herman have ever made much of a splash in Britain, barring a couple of unfortunate newspaper headlines a while back, so it would be easy to write Big Top Pee-Wee off as a forgettable kids’ movie, mainly notable for being directed by the man who gave us Grease. On this basis you might decide to give it a miss altogether but – depending on your sense of humour – that would be a pity.

The caveat in the last sentence is important because many people will dislike this film immensely for one simple reason: Pee-Wee Herman. He’s a curious character, on the one hand geeky, effete and camp, on the other waspish and – in this film, anyway – given to testosterone-fuelled lunges at his prim and proper fiancée, teacher Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller). Though they meet for lunch every day, Winnie doesn’t even know what Pee-Wee likes in his sandwiches, forcing him to face the hostile glares of the old townsfolk when he goes into the store for something to eat.

An approaching storm sends Pee-Wee and his best friend, talking pig Vance, back to their farm to get all the animals into the cellar; luckily, they are unscathed, but they emerge to the discovery that an entire circus run by Mace Montana and his diminutive wife Midge (Kris Kristofferson and Susan Tyrrell) has landed on the farm. Though the townspeople are as unwelcoming to the circus as they have always been to Pee-Wee, he persuades Mace to stay and give the circus a holiday, a gesture that allows him to get to know the lovely Gina (Valeria Golino) rather better.

Mace, after taking a tour of Pee-Wee’s research facilities (his creations including a hot-dog tree), decides that his circus needs fresh ideas; meanwhile, when Winnie and Gina find out about each other, Pee-Wee suddenly has more than one balancing act to perform, whilst also finding a way of getting his miserable old neighbours to come and see the show

On the surface, it’s preposterous that a strange man-child like Pee-Wee should find himself the object of affection of two women, but the joy of Big Top Pee-Wee is that it willingly embraces the bizarre and surreal, presenting farm animals sleeping in their own beds and thumb-sized women like everyday events (I loved the miniature breakfast Midge serves up). Pee-Wee is certainly an acquired taste, but his character, and the film in general, show a strong streak of invention that you might not expect from a children’s film.

Actually, like the main character, the film has a split personality; so while the farm, the talking animals, and the assorted oddities of the circus (including a mermaid, a troupe of acrobats who take Winnie’s fancy, and Benicio Del Toro playing a dog-faced boy) are likely to keep children amused, there is a more adult vein too, for example one of the longest kisses in film history and a naughty Monty Python-like use of footage suggesting Herman, erm, becomes a man.

Also, though the point is far from hammered home, the parochial hostility of the town to anyone who is different – they turn up at Pee-Wee’s farm with flaming torches – lends the film a poignant note; whilst celebrating his individuality, there is something simultaneously funny and sad about Pee-Wee lining himself up with the array of circus freaks. These little touches, along with the weird and wonderful jokes and Kris Kristofferson providing nice ballast as the circus owner, help the film to bowl along pleasantly, which is just as well since the plot doesn’t really go anywhere and the romance between Pee-Wee and Gina, despite all the kissing, is hardly on a par with Bogart and Bergman.

The film also fails to find a satisfactory climax, since the circus show is simply that, containing a mediocre song and little that is new apart from Herman and friends’ high-wire act; that said, I have never understood the appeal of circuses anyway, so merely not finding these scenes unbearable is a form of praise.

I am given to understand that many people consider this film a poor cousin to Tim Burton’s Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and until I have seen that film I wouldn’t dare disagree. Nonetheless, I found Big Top Pee-Wee to be lively and light, and even if the movie is inconsequential and quickly forgotten, the quirks of the title character make him a great deal more fun than his tongue-tied English cousin, Mr Bean.

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