Catholic Movie Club: The strange and silly image of heaven in ‘Pee-wee’s Big Adventure’
The Catholic Movie Club is a short weekly essay pulling out spiritual themes in our favorite films. You can discuss the movies with other readers in the comments on this page or in our Facebook group. Find past Catholic Movie Club selections here.
This past Sunday, actor and comedian Paul Reubens—best known for creating and embodying the childlike Pee-wee Herman—passed away following a private six-year battle with cancer. It felt fitting to dedicate this week’s Catholic Movie Club to him, and his most iconic film: “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” (1986).
In his first and best known film, Pee-wee Herman approaches the world, and others, with simple joy and trust.
Directed by Tim Burton (his feature debut) and written by Reubens, Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol, “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”sees the gray-suited naif embark on a cross-country road trip after the theft of his beloved red bicycle. It’s a surreal odyssey, marrying Reubens’ ironic-sincere stylings with Burton’s macabre-fairytale aesthetic. Pee-wee travels haunted roads and encounters the late 20th-century American versions of ogres and spoiled princes, but dreams also come true, kindness is repaid and miracles happen.
Pee-wee, to put it lightly, is a strange character: a grown man in an immaculate gray suit and a red bowtie who speaks and acts like a precocious child. He looks like a ventriloquist’s dummy come to life, and has a similar air—both funny and a little frightening. Pee-wee embodies both the innocence of childhood and its chaos.
That innocence is what makes Pee-wee so endearing, and makes “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure”—absurd as it is—so spiritually rich. Pee-wee approaches the world, and others, with simple joy and trust. Sometimes that backfires, like when he immediately surrenders his wallet to the world’s most patently phony psychic. But more often than not he makes new friends, including an escaped convict, a diner waitress with Parisian dreams and a bar of surly bikers.
Jesus tells us “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). He doesn’t point to children as models of faith because they are so pure, but because their belief is so uncomplicated. Children are wholly dependent on others to survive, but unless given a good reason not to, they operate under the assumption that their parents will care for them and attend to their every need. This, Jesus says, is how we must approach God. Pee-wee’s faith is in people, not God, but in this film, we see a reflection of that simple, childlike faith that Christ extols.
Innocence doesn’t mean perfection; Pee-wee can be self-centered and moody. Reubens, like the rest of us, wasn’t perfect either—aside from Pee-wee, he’s probably most famous for his legal troubles. Maybe that’s why he, and Pee-wee, always identified with outcasts, outsiders and weirdos. Browse the many tributes to Reubens, and you’ll find a common message: Pee-wee taught me it was okay to be different. That’s something Burton (another outsider hero) understands well, and it is essential to “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” He meets many oddballs on his journey, and always accepts them on their own terms.
Of course, this brings to mind Christ’s penchant for spending His time with those whom polite society would rather ignore. Like Christ, Pee-wee has no interest in the judgments of polite society, not when they lead to excluding other people. If Reubens’ work has a lasting legacy, I think it should be that: inspiring us to welcome those whom others would reject, to view differences with wonder and good humor. Simply, to love people as they are.
Rewatching “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” so soon after Reubens’ death, the ending took on a special resonance. Pee-wee goes to the drive-in with Dottie (Elizabeth Daily) and all of the new friends he made throughout the film to watch a movie based on his adventures. That’s not a bad image of Heaven: reunited with all of the strange, beautiful people you met along the road, forever.
“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” is available to rent or buy on Apple TV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play and DirecTV.