Big Top Pee-wee
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRandal Kleiser
Written byPaul Reubens
George McGrath
Produced byPaul Reubens
Debra Hill
CinematographySteven Poster
Edited byJeff Gourson
Music byDanny Elfman
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • July 22, 1988 (1988-07-22)
Running time
85 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$20 million[2]
Box office$15.1 million[3]

Big Top Pee-wee is a 1988 American comedy film directed by Randal Kleiser. It is the second installment of the Pee-wee Herman trilogy and a standalone sequel to Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), the film stars Paul Reubens as Pee-wee Herman with Susan Tyrrell, Kris Kristofferson, Penelope Ann Miller, and Valeria Golino in supporting roles. The original music score is composed by Danny Elfman (although he also scored Pee-wee's Big Adventure, he could not use any themes from that film due to contractual restrictions). It was released on July 22, 1988, and grossed $15 million against a $20 million budget. Another standalone sequel, Pee-wee's Big Holiday, was released in 2016.


Pee-wee Herman lives an idyllic life on a farm with his assistant Vance, a talking pig. There he grows vegetables, dreams of being a famous singer, has a daily lunch with his fiancée, school teacher Winnie Johnson, and conducts agronomical experiments in a secure greenhouse. One day after lunch he is at Mr. Ryan's general store, his quirky personality barely tolerated by the townsfolk, when the local sheriff warns of a large storm approaching town. He rushes home and puts his farm animals into shelter.

After the storm ends, Pee-wee emerges from his storm shelter to discover that an entire traveling circus has been blown into his backyard. He befriends the ringmaster Mace Montana and falls for trapeze artist Gina Piccolapupula, the circus's star attraction. Winnie catches Pee-wee just as he shares his first kiss with Gina, and both women shun him for two-timing them. Pee-wee calls off his engagement to Winnie and convinces Gina that he truly loves her, whereupon she warms up to him again and they begin a romantic relationship. Winnie forgives Pee-wee after finding that she would much rather date all four of Gina's brothers at once.

Pee-wee attempts to join the circus, but cannot perform any circus acts. Gina tells Pee-wee about her deceased father Papa Piccolapupula, a famous aerialist who died attempting something called the "Spiral of Death." She suggests that Pee-wee should try walking the tightrope in his honor.

The curmudgeonly town elders, meanwhile, hate the circus and want it gone. Mace attempts to placate them by inventing a new show saluting the American Farm. The sheriff will have none of it, though, and threatens to arrest Pee-wee on various trumped-up charges if the circus does not leave immediately. Mace capitulates and sadly tells the circus performers to begin packing up.

Pee-wee recalls one of his agronomical experiments, a serum which, when applied to one of his other experiments, a hot-dog tree, made the hot dogs reverse their growth and shrink to the size of cocktail weiners. He feigns repentance to the town elders and feeds them the serum-laced cocktail weiners, causing them to become children and lose their adult memories. With no obstacle remaining, the circus performs their new American Farm show for the townspeople (including the former elders), and Pee-wee walks the tightrope.



Following the success of the 1985 Warner Bros. film Pee-wee's Big Adventure, Paul Reubens signed a development deal with Paramount Pictures to write, produce, and/or direct additional projects for the character of Pee-wee Herman.[4] Big Top Pee-wee was the first project in the deal to go into production.

Golden Oak Ranch, the farm where Pee-Wee lives.

The Paramount production was directed by Randal Kleiser and written by Paul Reubens and George McGrath. Reubens also co-produced the film with Debra Hill. Filming locations included Disney's Golden Oak Ranch in Newhall, California,[4] and the auditorium at Hart High School in Santa Clarita.[5] Big Top Pee-wee was Kleiser's first movie for Paramount since 1978's Grease.

During a 1988 television special, Herman acknowledged the long hours of circus training undertaken by the film's actors and that they spent a year and a half working on the movie. He also humorously compared himself as an actor to James Cagney and Spencer Tracy and ended by saying that Big Top Pee-wee was "at least as good as Police Academy."[6]

Release and reception

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 36% rating based on 22 reviews, with the site's critical consensus stating: "Its endearingly oddball lead character gives it his all, but Big Top Pee-Wee simply lacks the whimsical magic of its predecessor."[7]

Roger Ebert gave the film two stars[8] and, along with colleague Gene Siskel, also gave it a thumbs down on their television program, At the Movies.[9] In a comparison to previous Pee-wee works, Ebert claimed that what had made Pee-wee's Playhouse and Pee-wee's Big Adventure great was "the characters in those have absolutely no connection with reality whatsoever, and that is why they were so enduring and enjoyable".[9] Caryn James of The New York Times criticized the film for making Pee-wee "slightly less eccentric" and said the "new, lukewarm, compromised Pee-wee is remarkably unfunny."[10] The negative reviews reflected the film's performance at the box office, where it grossed $15,122,324,[3] suffering from competition with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, and the re-issue of Bambi, among other summer releases.[11] In 2010, Paul Reubens said that Paramount terminated his development deal and evicted him from his office on their lot the day after the movie's disappointing opening weekend.[12]

Standalone sequel

The film was followed by another standalone sequel, Pee-wee's Big Holiday (2016).


  1. ^ "Big Top Pee-Wee (PG)". British Board of Film Classification. November 17, 1988. Archived from the original on August 27, 2014. Retrieved December 10, 2012.
  2. ^ "Big Top Pee-Wee". TheWrap. Archived from the original on September 23, 2015. Retrieved May 4, 2013.
  3. ^ a b Big Top Pee-wee at Box Office Mojo
  4. ^ a b "Big Top Pee-wee at AFI|Catalog". Retrieved August 7, 2022.
  5. ^ "Film/Arts | 'Big Top Pee-wee' 1988: Original Storyboard Art SC3-JKL". Retrieved August 7, 2022.
  6. ^ "Interview with Pee Wee Herman 1989". YouTube. May 28, 2007. Retrieved August 24, 2008.
  7. ^ Big Top Pee-wee at Rotten Tomatoes
  8. ^ Ebert, Roger (July 22, 1988). "Big Top Pee-Wee". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved August 7, 2022 – via
  9. ^ a b "At the Movies - July 23, 1988". Siskel and Ebert Movie Reviews. Retrieved August 7, 2022.
  10. ^ James, Caryn (July 22, 1988). "The World of the Circus According to Pee-wee". The New York Times. Retrieved October 17, 2022 – via
  11. ^ Easton, Nina J. (January 5, 1989). "Nice Guys Finish First : 'Roger Rabbit' Hops to Box-Office Top; 'Coming to America' Hits 2nd". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 7, 2022.
  12. ^ "Paul Reubens: Playboy Interview". Playboy. Archived from the original on August 17, 2010. Retrieved October 17, 2023.