Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: Tim Burton's best movie

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Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is still Tim Burton's best film, says movie blogger Dominic Corry.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is Tim Burton's best film. Photo / AP
Pee-Wee's Big Adventure is Tim Burton's best film. Photo / AP

With Tim Burton's latest film Dark Shadows coming out last week, there's been a lot of discussion about the director's current relevance, and how his last several movies have failed to live up to his early efforts.

I am firmly in the camp that has been disappointed by everything since 2001's Planet of the Apes, perhaps excepting 2003's Big Fish.

In the late '80s and early '90s, each of Burton's films represented a huge leap forward for studio filmmaking. They were big, populist entertainment (I'm talking stuff like Beetlejuice, Batman and Edward Scissorhands), but they each possessed a bold and unique tone and look.

Burton was a vanguard. He pushed the medium forward.

By the time we got around to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice In Wonderland, Burton's distinctiveness as a filmmaker had all but disappeared.

His production design-driven style of filmmaking had become so widespread that his films (the two mentioned above in particular) started looking exactly how you expected them to.

They looked like someone trying to make a "Tim Burton film," as opposed to an authored work with a personal vision.

Dark Shadows isn't the huge return to form I was hoping for, but it is Burton's most interesting film in years, and proved a reasonably entertaining watch.

With all the discussion about Burton's oeuvre, I have noticed one film isn't getting mentioned as much as it should, Burton's debut feature Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, which was released in 1985.

I'm often surprised by how many people don't realise Tim Burton directed this film.

In addition to being my all-time favourite comedy, I consider Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to be Burton's best film by a country mile. If you've never seen it, stop what you're doing right now and right this colossal wrong.

I see the film as an important turning point in popular culture, and humour in particular. 1980's Flying High! did an amazing job of making fun of familiar cinematic tropes in a specific way, and helped to popularize a new style of knowing humour.

It built on public awareness of pop culture conventions, and relished in turning them inside out. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure took it to the next level. The film's absurdist humour also relied on audience familiarity with cinematic and storytelling conventions, but it also celebrated absurdity for its own sake with a glossy deadpan style that is widespread in comedy today.

You can see it in everything from The Simpsons to Arrested Development to Funny or Die.

The importance placed on production design that has defined Burton's work is already in full effect, though it lacks some of the gothic underpinnings for which he would be primarily associated.

The plot has indefinable manchild Pee-Wee Herman (credited as playing himself, but the creation of Paul Reubens, who rose to prominence in LA's famed Groundlings improv troupe) setting off across America to find his beloved bicycle when it is stolen.

He encounters all sorts of strange people and things along the way, and endures what could only be described as the adventure of a lifetime. It is wonderful.

Reubens co-wrote the script with the late, great Phil Hartman (also a member of the Groundlings, and perhaps best known as the voice of The Simpsons' Troy McClure) and Michael Varhol.

The lightning-in-a-bottle pairing with Tim Burton (then principally an animator) helped create one of the most distinctive and hilarious movies of all-time.

Reubens' subsequent TV show Pee-Wee's Playhouse, aimed at children, but which adults could very much enjoy (an innovative notion then, par for the course these days), is also well worth checking out, but a movie sequel, Big-Top Pee-Wee (1988) was less awesome.

Pee-Wee Herman went off the radar for a while following Reubens' infamous arrest in 1991, but he continued to act in other roles.

As the generation who grew up on Pee-Wee Herman came of age, the character started creeping back into the cultural consciousness. There was a successful Broadway revival of his stage act (which predated the movie) in 2010, which sparked rumours of a new film.

There were reports that uber comedy producer Judd Apatow was in someway involved, but nothing has come to fruition as yet. With Burton rumoured to be considering a Beetlejuice sequel, the only film I would want him to make over this is another Pee-Wee outing.

Reubens turns 50 this year, but all the public appearances he made to promote the stage show demonstrated he can still pull-off the Pee-Wee character with ease.

I must've watched Pee-Wee's Big Adventure 30 times and I never get sick of it. If you've never had the pleasure, I strongly urge you to watch it. And just remember, the Alamo has no basement.

Watch the trailer for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure:

* When was the last time you watched Pee-wee's Big Adventure? Do you hold out hope for a new Pee-wee film? What is your favourite Tim Burton film? Comment below!

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