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There's a lotta things about me you don't know anything about, Dottie. Things you wouldn't understand. Things you couldn't understand. Things you shouldn't understand.—Pee-wee, describing himself
One day, Pee-wee's treasured bike is stolen by a rival man-child. Desperate to get it back, he embarks on a cross country journey, meeting many bizarre characters along the way (and considering the sort of guy Pee-wee Herman is, that's one hell of a mouthful).
Notable for launching the careers of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman (his film composer career, anyway), though Reubens was the real person in-charge. A lesser-known factoid is that much of the film's atmosphere is based on the 1982 no-budget cult film Forbidden Zone: Burton and Reubens were both huge fans of the film, and their decision to hire Danny Elfman was based on his work with the Forbidden Zone group. The movie was written by Reubens and the late great Phil Hartman.
Pee-wee's Big Adventure contains examples of the following tropes:
- Adult Child: Pee-wee of course, as well as Francis.
- All Bikers Are Hells Angels: "Satan's Helpers". Subverted when Pee-wee makes friends with them.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees: Yes, Mr. T breakfast cereal actually existed.
- Apathetic Citizens: The movie clearly establishes the strip mall Pee Wee visits is busy - with hordes of people walking around, riding bikes and skateboards. However evidently no one seems to have said anything about a person cutting a hundred pounds of chain off of a bike and leaving with it.
- Bad Bad Acting: In the Show Within a Show that ends the film, Pee-Wee mouths the actor's lines along with him and keeps glancing at the camera. At one point he can be seen glancing at the director off camera and then sliding partially out of frame.
- Bad Guy Bar: Home of "Satan's Helpers".
- Beware of Hitch-Hiking Ghosts: Inverted. The passenger isn't a ghost, but the driver is.
- Bull Seeing Red: Andy goes after Pee-Wee, who is riding a bull. The bull sees Andy's red shirt and chases him right out of the movie.
- By the Lights of Their Eyes: Pee-wee, when hitchhiking through the desert at night.
- Chekhov's Armoury: The magic shop. The only item to not see use in the movie was the Boomerang Bowtie (it's a Deleted Scene).
- Contrived Coincidence: All the so-called "clues" just happen to lead Pee-Wee to where he needs to go.
- Cool and Unusual Punishment:
Lead biker: I say, we kill him.
Rest of the gang: Yeah!
Biker #2: I say we hang him then we kill him.
Rest of the gang: Yeah!
Biker #3: I say we scalp him!
Biker #3: Then we tattoo him!
Biker #3: Then we hang him!
Biker #3: And then we kill him!
Pee-Wee (in a tiny voice): I say we let him go.
Biker gang: NO!
- Cool Bike: The driving force of the whole movie is Pee-Wee's quest to find his. The bike itself has rocket boosters, an Ejection Seat, can unleash an Oil Slick, and has spare handlebars pop out if one gets pulled off. Pee-Wee's about to add a truck horn when the bike gets stolen.
- Creator Cameo:
- Tim Burton is a thug in the alley way.
- Co-writer Phil Hartman is a reporter at the drive in theater.
- Danny Elfman: Started his and Burton's long & glorious partnership.
- Deadpan Snarker: As goofy as Pee-Wee acts, there are actually people out there that exasperate even him.
- Demon Head: Large Marge.
- Deleted Scene: The Amazing Larry moment and the Boomerang Bowtie were both explained in cut footage that can be found on the DVD.
- Disguised in Drag: Pee Wee. Both the policeman and Mickey seem to like what they see.
- Drive-In Theater: Where Pee-wee and Dottie finally go on their date.
- Fake Static: Pee-wee does this to avoid asking Dottie out to the drive-in.
- Fat Bastard: Francis Buxton, Pee-wee's arch-nemesis.
Pee-wee: I want to see Francis!
Butler: Francis is busy.
Pee-wee: Busy doing what?!
Butler: He is taking his bath.
Pee-wee: Oh really, WHERE ARE THEY HOSIN' HIM DOWN?!
- Forgotten Phlebotinum: The boomerang bow tie, even after it gets more dialogue than the things that were used.
Mario: And direct from Australia... The Boomerang Bow-Tie!
Pee-wee: Come in red?
Mario: [Mario pulls out a red boomerang bow-tie]
- Hey, It's That Guy!:
- Francis' butler is played by "Professor" Toru Tanaka (aka Sub Zero).
- The lone Biker Babe in the Hell Satan's club is Elvira.
- Several co-stars of Pee-wee's nightclub act and tv show also make appearances: Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne) plays Mother Superior, John Paragon (Jambi) is the high-voiced extra in red armor who Pee-Wee asks directions from, and Phil Hartman (Captain Carl) is the reporter interviewing Francis at the drive-in at the end.
- Hey, It's That Voice!: Pee-Wee's girlfriend is played by Tommy Pickles/Buttercup.
- Hiss Before Fleeing: Inverted. At night in a storm, a deranged Pee-wee is walking through an alley, when he's accosted by a group of hoods (one of whom is Burton):
Hooligan: Hey, you're new around here! We don't take kindly to strangers on our turf!
[Pee-wee hisses as a flash of lightning lights up the night; the gangbangers flee in terror]
- I Meant to Do That: The Trope Namer
- Improvised Parachute: The roof on a convertible.
- Informed Loner: A running gag has people who try to ditch someone claim to be "a loner, a rebel..." Pee-wee says it to worm out of a date with Dottie, which is mirrored in the Film Within a Film. Mickey also ditches Pee-wee with the same words in an Ironic Echo.
- Innocent Innuendo: Simone, the Greasy Spoon waitress, is overheard by her boyfriend talking to Pee-wee, and he assumes something else "Everyone I know has a big 'but' [read: excuse for not following their dream] Come on, Simone, let's talk about your big 'but.'"
- Jail Bake: Not in a cake, but in a footlong hot dog.
- Lemming Cops: The security guards at Warner Brothers, who take chase (and crash rather impressively), rather than just cutting off all the studio exits.
- Line-of-Sight Name: How Pee-wee gets duped by a fortune teller into going on a wild goose hunt to the Alamo.
- Man Child: Pee-wee and his archnemesis Francis Buxton.
- Matchlight Danger Revelation: Taken to the extreme, when Pee-wee discovers that he's surrounded by every animal in the desert.
- Mattress Tag Gag: The reason Mickey is a wanted criminal, or so he tells Pee-Wee.
- Missed Him by That Much: Pee-wee's bike is being towed on a trailer, as he's riding alongside it.
- Monster Clown: Pee-wee's nightmares are full of them.
- Nightmare Face:
- Large Marge
- The various evil clowns
- Nightmare Sequence: Pee-wee's nightmares.
- Number One Dime: Pee-wee's bike.
- Oh Crap: Accident or not, Pee-wee knows that knocking over the badass bikers Harleys is forfeiting his life.
- Prisons Are Gymnasiums: Pee-wee asks Mickey what "the big house" is like.
Mickey: You get to lift weights, watch TV, write up appeals, take long showers, lift weights. You get used to it.
- Real After All: Large Marge.
- Rent-A-Zilla: Arguably subverted here, as during Pee-wee's backlot chase scene the monster movie set he rides through features the actual Godzilla fighting the actual King Ghidorah, for which Warner Brothers was sued.
- Rube Goldberg Device: What Pee-wee uses to make his breakfast.
- Rules of the Road: Pee-wee passes increasingly absurd signs while driving at night.
- Santa Claus: Santa Claus and Godzilla. Together at last!
- Shout-Out: Large Marge is an homage to the classic ghost story of Big Joe. Unlike Marge, Joe is a friendly fella who doesn't try to scare his passengers and even gives them money to eat at the diner where he drops them off.
- Show Within a Show: The movie based on Pee-wee's life at the end.
- Spell My Name with an "S": In the DVD commentary, Reubens points out that Pee-wee's flyer incorrectly capitalizes the "W" in "Pee-wee."
- Survivors Guilt: During the scene when Pee-wee is wheeled out of the bike shop on a gurney, actress Elizabeth Daily's face went completely white. After filming the scene, Reubens asked her what was wrong and she replied to him that the scene had brought back painful memories of seeing her then-boyfriend, Jon-Erik Hexum, being wheeled off of a set on a gurney after accidentally and fatally shooting himself.
- The Cameo:
- Twisted Sister is recording a music video during Pee-wee's chase across the backlots.
- Pee-wee hides in Milton Berle's entourage while he tells the punchline to a joke.
- James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild play "P.W." and Dottie, respectively, in the fake movie at the end.
- In-Universe Pee-Wee has a cameo as the bellhop in the movie based on him.
- The Name Is Bond, James Bond: "P.W." Herman announces himself this way in the movie of the movie. "Reservation under Herman... P.W. Herman."
- Too Dumb to Live: Pee-wee, in a bar full of murderous bikers: "Shhhh! I'm trying to use the phone!"
- Uncanny Valley Makeup: The doctor who eviscerates Pee-wee's bike in his nightmare.
- Vocal Dissonance: Pee-Wee's voice is dubbed when he makes his cameo in the movie based on his life. Needless to say, it sounds ridiculous.
- What Could Have Been: This was originally pitched as a remake to Pollyanna (which is Paul Reubens' favorite film). The indirect sequel Big Top Pee Wee has a bit more Pollyanna influence.
- Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: One of the animals sold in the burning pet shop are snakes, which Pee-Wee is rather squeamish about touching. When there's no other animals left to be saved (except for the fishes), he grabs as many as he can and runs out of the building screaming.
- Work Off the Debt: Pee-wee washes dishes for his meal at a diner after discovering that he left his wallet at Madam Ruby's.