The entertainment world suffered a significant loss with the passing of Paul Reubens on July 30, 2023. A uniquely gifted comedic actor with his brand of quirky humor, Reubens will forever be synonymous with Pee-wee Herman, a character he created and debuted via the 1981 stage performance of The Pee-wee Herman Show.
The show was so successful that Reubens would go on to portray the title character in Tim Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and its two sequels, Big-Top Pee-wee and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. However, when it comes to Reubens’ filmography, there is far more to the actor’s resume than meets the eye. With a heavy heart and celebratory appreciation of his lasting legacy, it’s time to highlight the best movies of Paul Reubens’ career according to Rotten Tomatoes.
10 Mystery Men (1999) – 60%
Mystery Men is an absurd superhero lampoon that follows a gaggle of bumbling amateurs out to thwart the evil plot of a villain named Casanova Frankenstein. Reubens plays Spleen, a wannabe hero whose incessant flatulence makes bad guys faint. While far from Reubens’ iconic persona as Pee-wee Herman, the off-beat brand of humor fits the actor like a glove.
Although some critics felt the movie was one long joke that ran out of steam by the third act, many felt the stellar cast of comedic actors lent enough charm and genuine laughter to warrant a good time. As a spoof, the underrated superhero movie hits all the right notes. It’s when the movie tries to go beyond mockery that director Kinka Usher struggles with the material. A fun if fairly benign diversion, Mystery Men’s cast is the best part about the movie.
9 Life During Wartime (2009) – 68%
Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime is a quasi-sequel to his controversial film Happiness. The characters are the same but played by different actors. The story follows Trish, a woman torn between her new lover and her husband who is recently released from jail. Reubens plays Andy (a character originated by Jon Lovitz), who appears as a ghostly vision to Trish’s sister Helen.
An acquired taste like most of Solondz’s challenging movies, Life During Wartime was received more favorably by critics (68%) than general audiences (48%). The dour arthouse film was extolled among critics for Solondz’s impressive world-building and offbeat characters, and the juxtaposition between the dark material and bright, sunny Florida setting. Although Reubens appears ephemerally, his presence within the context of the story is hard to forget.
8 Teacher’s Pet (2004) – 76%
Teacher’s Pet is a brisk 73-minute animated film about a dog named Spot. Spot can read and poses as a human to attend school with his friend Leonard, where zany misadventures ensue. Reubens voices the role of Dennis, a crocodile who is forced to work on behalf of Dr. Krank, a scientist who can turn animals into humans. Dr. Krank makes Dennis capture Spot to turn him into a human but later reveals he hates being Krank’s underling.
With a Certified Fresh rating, most critics hailed the film for its fast pace, bright colors, quick wit, and irreverent sense of humor. The older movie available on Disney+ was also praised for its hilarious cast of comedic voice actors, and for having jokes that appeal to adults as well as children. While not considered an all-time Disney classic, the movie is a worthy watch thanks to actors like Reubens, Nathan Lane, and Kelsey Grammer leading the way.
7 Back to the Beach (1987) – 78%
Back to the Beach is a sequel to those classic Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello beach comedies of the 1960s. The plot follows the two visiting their daughter in California, only to rekindle their wild lifestyle on the surf and sand. Believe it or not, Reubens appears as Pee-wee Herman in the movie alongside several pop-culture icons like Connie Stevens and Jerry Mathers. In no real surprise, Pee-wee steals the show by singing “Surfing Bird.”
Praised for being a fun blast from the past that leans on ’60s nostalgia, Back to the Beach is a silly comedy loaded with memorable zingers and one-liners. It never takes itself too seriously, which makes it hard to criticize. Much like Teacher’s Pet, the movie serves as a reminder of how integral singing and dancing were to Reubens’ brand of humor.
6 Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016) – 80%
While Big-Top Pee-wee didn’t fare so well among critics, the 2016 sequel Pee-wee’s Big Holiday hit many of the notes that made Pee-wee Herman such a popular icon in the first place. Co-written by Reubens in the last role he played before his tragic demise, the acclaimed comedy sequel finds Pee-wee taking a much-needed vacation for the first time in his life. Of course, wacky hijinks ensue as only Pee-wee can navigate.
A huge dose of nostalgic bliss, the movie drew acclaim for Reubens’ heartfelt performance as well as the sweet-natured story. While some felt the movie lacked the amount of laughter featured in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the movie overcomes its minor shortcomings thanks to faithfully honoring Pee-wee’s sense of anarchic absurdity. In many ways, it’s a poetic send-off for Reubens who essentially began and ended his movie career with an all-time great comedic character.
5 Batman Returns (1992) – 81%
Rotten Tomatoes has curiously omitted Batman Returns from Reubens’ page. But the fact remains, Reubens reunited with Tim Burton to play the Penguin’s Father, Tucker Cobblepot, in the acclaimed superhero sequel. Of course, the Penguin is played by Danny DeVito, who would go on to direct Reubens in Matilda four years later.
In a rare case of critics favoring the sequel over the original, Batman Returns did everything a continuation story should. It’s bigger, bolder, and has higher stakes thanks to the casting of villains like the Penguin, Catwoman, and Max Schreck. While Reubens appears briefly, it’s great to see him reunite with Burton and composer Danny Elfman almost a decade after launching their careers.
4 Flight of the Navigator (1986) – 84%
Flight of the Navigator is an underrated Disney sci-fi adventure movie about a boy named David. Upon being abducted by a sentient alien spaceship, David travels the cosmos for nine years and gets into epic misadventures along his journey. Reubens voices Max, the ship’s computer system that develops a witty rapport with David on their travels.
Released one year after Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Max is one of Reubens’ least-known performances (he’s even credited as Paul Mall). While the film is most notable for being one of the first movies to employ CGI, critics lauded the film for capturing the sense of childlike wonderment that David experiences in outer space. Most nascent CGI looks painfully outdated in retrospect, but Flight of the Navigator holds up and withstands the test of time.
3 Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) – 87%
Directed by Tim Burton from a script co-written by Reubens, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is loosely inspired by the Italian neo-realist classic, Bicycle Thieves. The story follows Pee-wee on a journey from Burbank to Texas to find his missing bike, leading him to encounter a slew of wacky characters along the way. The movie all but launched Reubens’ movie career and solidified Pee-wee Herman as a bona fide pop culture icon.
Despite being Burton’s first movie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure hit all the right notes to become a hit. Fun for the whole family to enjoy, the movie has been favored for introducing one of the most original and innovative comedic characters on record. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Reubens playing Pee-wee, who has been compared to Buster Keaton for his inventive onscreen persona.
2 Matilda (1996) – 91%
Based on the Roald Dahl children’s story, Matilda traces the titular little girl who possesses an advanced IQ and possesses telekinetic powers. Matilda uses her powers to rescue her benevolent teacher from the malevolent headmistress while standing up to her cruel parents. Reubens plays FBI Agent Bob, who investigates Matilda’s father and his shady car business while posing as a speedboat merchant.
Directed by Danny DeVito, Matilda drew near-universal acclaim for capturing the zany spirit of Dahl’s gleefully irreverent source material. The delightfully charming oddball movie has a great message for children and despite some dark turns, manages to bottle the magic and majesty that made Dahl’s stories so resonant.
1 The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – 95%
In many ways, it’s only fitting that Reubens’ best movie comes from the mind of Tim Burton. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a classic children’s movie about Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, who gets more than he bargained for upon discovering Christmas Town and attempting to spread yuletide cheer in his neighborhood.
One of the most original family films marked by stunning stop-motion, the movie has become an annual holiday classic for many viewers. Both memorable macabre and mordantly moving, Reubens adds a lot to the story as Lock, one of Oogie Boogie’s trick-or-treating henchmen. Whether seeing it for the first time as a child or revisiting it as an adult, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a gift that keeps on giving.