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Big Top Pee-Wee

Big Top Pee-Wee (1988), comedian Paul Reubens' follow-up to 1985's Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, lacked a few of more important elements that made the first Pee Wee Herman movie so much fun. For starters, where Big Adventure had a hilarious script co-written by Reubens and his former Groundlings' improv pal Phil Hartman, Reubens' partner on the more lackluster Big Top Pee-Wee script was comedian George McGrath, who wrote for the "Pee-Wee's Playhouse" TV show (most recently a writer for the gawdawful sitcoms "Hope & Gloria" and "Emeril"). Most painfully absent this time around, though, was the brilliance of director Tim Burton, replaced behind the camera by Randal Kleiser (Grease, The Blue Lagoon, Grandview U.S.A.). While not entirely without enjoyable moments, Big Top Pee-Wee is very short at a mere 88 minutes and feels more like a television pilot than a worthy successor to the first, funnier Pee-Wee Herman outing. After an inspired dream sequence with Pee-Wee imagining himself as a famous nightclub singer, the film chugs along through some very sluggish expository scenes in which we learn that Pee-Wee owns a farm, is disliked mightily by the tight-assed local residents, and does some very high-end agricultural experiments in his top-secret greenhouse. But things pick up when a circus literally blows into town with a sudden storm — led by ringmaster Mace Montana (Kris Kristofferson), the Cabrini Circus soon finds that they're not welcome in the small rural community by anyone other than Pee-Wee and his fiancee, local schoolmarm Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller). Complications arise when Pee-Wee falls for the circus's star attraction, a beautiful Italian aerialist (Valeria Golino), and then desperately struggles to find some way that he can perform under the big top, too. While the film is as good-natured and light as Big Adventure, the attempt to turn Pee-Wee into a more adult character complete with sexual frustrations and romantic involvements is more than a little discomforting, even if you don't think about Reubens' high profile, real-life carnal adventures. Watching the childlike Pee-Wee leap upon Miller as they lay on their picnic blanket or seeing him fall into bed with Golino (accompanied by the visual of a train entering a tunnel and exploding fireworks) is, in a word, icky. And with the whimsical surrealism of Burton's vision supplanted by Kleiser's clunky literalism, certain questions about the plot inevitably arise — like, why do the mean townspeople hate Pee-Wee (and circuses) so very, very much? And how does a freakish man-child like Pee-Wee attract two drop-dead gorgeous women like Miller and Golino? And how does he earn enough money to pay for the farm and all the animals and his experiments? These are the sorts of questions that shouldn't come up when watching a comedy like this, but the awkward insistence on making Pee-Wee's odd little world more realistic makes them inevitable. Still, Reubens is just too gifted a performer to fall completely flat — many of the jokes are very funny, the relationship between Pee-Wee and Gina is sweet, and it's fun to watch Big Top Pee-Wee with an eye towards spotting unlikely actors in small parts — like a young Benicio Del Toro in his first film role as Duke the Dog-Faced Boy. Paramount's DVD release offers a really clean, bright, vibrant transfer in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with a choice of Dolby 2.0 or DD 5.1 audio — both very good mixes, doing an excellent job of showcasing what is, perhaps, the most impressive thing about Big Top Pee-Wee — Danny Elfman's amazing, complex, Nino-Rota-meets-P.T. Barnum score. No extras, keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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