Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 1, 2004)
When I saw and adored 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, I assumed that its charms occurred due to the creative influence of Paul Reubens, the creator and portrayer of Pee-wee Herman. I’d never heard of director Tim Burton, so I figured he was just a stooge who helped enact Reubens’ warped vision.
In 1988, I found out just how wrong I was. Burton scored a moderate hit with Beetlejuice, a flick that fell short of Adventure’s glories but managed many of its own pleasures and signaled Burton as a distinctive talent. Reubens, on the other hand, put out his own follow-up with Big Top Pee-wee.
My friend Kevin and I both eagerly anticipated Top and saw it opening night. To relate our reaction as disappointment would represent a gross understatement. Frankly, we felt absolutely shocked at what we saw, for we could scarcely imagine a less funny and entertaining film.
16 years later, I figured I should give Top another shot. After all, we went into that theatrical screening with extremely high expectations. Was it possible that Top really wasn’t a bad film, but it suffered simply from comparisons with the excellent Adventure?
Nope - it just stinks. The Pee-wee in Top runs his own farm. Apparently a brilliant engineer of food genetics, Pee-wee works on improved produce and also courts schoolmarm Winnie (Penelope Ann Miller). He eats lunch with her everyday, though she seems reluctant to make their romance more physical. The locals don’t cotton much to Pee-wee otherwise.
A massive storm rocks the town, and Pee-wee takes refuge in his cellar. When he emerges, he discovers the wreckage of a circus all over his property. He meets Mace Montana (Kris Kristofferson), the manager of the circus, and helps them deal with the catastrophe. He also encounters trapeze artist Gina (Valeria Golina) and immediately becomes smitten with her.
The circus gets a cold reception from Pee-wee’s cranky neighbors, so at Pee-wee’s urging, they take a vacation and stay on the farm. Pee-wee works with Mace to come up with a new idea to spark the circus. In the meantime, he falls for Gina, which creates a love triangle with Winnie. We see how Pee-wee copes with the changes in his life.
Point at which Top threatened to lose me totally: around the nine-minute mark, when the pig spoke. The film ladled on the cutesy animal shots anyway, but when it entered Mr. Ed territory, it became to precious for words. How can anyone like a flick in which a pig utters the phrase, “Women and chickens first”?
Point at which Top did alienate me irrevocably: about two minutes later, when Pee-wee attempted to molest Winnie. Pee-wee’s meant to be a bizarre man-child, a boy in the body of a grown-up. This moment took him away from that and seemed badly out of character.
The film also goes out of its way to attempt to siphon some of Adventure’s glory. The entire introduction replicates that of the earlier film. It opens with Pee-wee’s dream of fame and success and then goes into his morning routine. The difference? It was funny in Adventure but simply cutesy here.
Much of the problem comes from the flick’s tone. It plays without the irony of Adventure. For example, we see the earnestness of Mace as something unencumbered by the necessary snarky attitude to make it work. Adventure parodied traditional film elements, while Top buys into them without any filter. Even its infamous kissing sequence plays without anything to make it seem like anything other than a normal romance moment.
This doesn’t work at all. Really, Big Top Pee-wee provides much more of a kiddie movie than Adventure. It plods along with nary a hint of humor; indeed, the funniest moment comes from what appears to have been a goof that remained in the film. Top stands as a truly terrible flick.
Trivia note: in the role of Duke the dog-faced boy, we find future Oscar-winner Benicio Del Toro! I’m sure other notable actors have appeared in movies as bad as Top, but that’s tough to imagine.