Back in the 1980’s especially, you couldn’t escape the presence of Pee-wee Herman. This character was all over the place! Whether he was headlining his own Emmy-winning TV series, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, or helping a little-known director called Tim Burton continue his rise to fame in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, the character of Pee-wee Herman, consistently played by Paul Reubens, was a pop culture icon, and one of the handful that successfully bridged the generational gap, finding appeal with both children and adults alike. The character was so big that he was even the lone presence of certain anti-drug PSA’s, where he simply told you not to do it, and you listened, because Pee-wee said so. That’s how ubiquitous Pee-wee was back then!
More recently though, the character of Pee-wee Herman has largely faded from the mainstream consciousness. After two rather unfortunate arrests and subsequent scandals with Reubens (we know what they were, I won’t repeat it), Pee-wee sort of just vanished, as if the illusion behind him had been shattered, and in a way, maybe it was. Over the past few years however, Reubens has started to rebuild his act, and with it, the character of Pee-wee has started to make a small return. After starting the decade with some successful stage appearances from the character, it seemed like only a matter of time before a brand new Pee-wee Herman-starring movie was released. Now, in 2016, we have it; Pee-wee’s Big Holiday.
Already being a risky project, given how long Pee-wee has spent out of the limelight, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday skipped theatres entirely, in favour of an exclusive release on Netflix, as the latest offering in the growing Netflix Original Film catalogue. It’s a welcome release too, because this might be the first true undisputed winner that Netflix has managed to offer in the Netflix Original Film selection! Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a truly delightful, very entertaining movie, one that proves that Reubens hasn’t lost a step in his iconic role as Pee-wee Herman.
You might be able to infer from the title that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is very similar to 1985’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and honestly, it kind of is, in terms of how the movie progresses. Even then though, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday avoids feeling like a complete re-tread, having a new batch of eccentric set pieces that prove to be quite entertaining, especially for adults who fondly remember growing up on Pee-wee’s character in the 80’s. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is still quite family-friendly, and is perfectly fine for children to view, though the movie nonetheless feels like its chief audience is adults who are kids at heart, hence why it’s marketed on the main Netflix page, presenting itself as a very charming and undeniably effective celebration of how having fun and experiencing adventure is something that no one should ever aspire to grow out of.
Obviously, the focal point of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is Pee-wee Herman himself, yet again portrayed by Paul Reubens. Pee-wee truly hasn’t aged a day either, even almost thirty years later. I truly mean that, because Reubens somehow manages to look exactly the same as he did in the 80’s here, which was apparently done with some time in make-up and a few CGI touch-ups. Even so, it helps to preserve the image of Pee-wee as an especially lovable, seemingly immortal man-child, and I suppose that’s well and good.
Beyond the look of Pee-wee Herman, Reubens also continues to effectively capture the personality of the character, who, surprisingly, is as enjoyable as he ever was in this movie. Pee-wee is charming, funny and often unpredictable in his antics. He’s a very simple, straightforward and innocent personality, but even in the seemingly more cynical era of 2016, the character still manages to work. This is of course thanks to Reubens’ talents most of all, though it’s also because the movie is bolstered by a surprisingly great script, which manages to strike a strong balance between child-like wonder and smart adult-oriented humour.
To this end, the movie’s supporting cast is also pretty strong themselves. Personalities like a trio of bubbly female bank robbers, played by Jessica Pohly, Alia Shawkat and Stephanie Beatriz, an aviation expert played by Diane Salinger (returning from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in a new role), and Joe Manganiello, who plays himself, are all great fun and full of personality, without ever becoming annoying. Manganiello is a particular highlight, being a comically unlikely friend of Pee-wee’s who serves as the main catalyst behind the events of the movie. Manganiello really goes for broke and fully embraces the charming silliness of Pee-wee’s return to the movies, and it’s just impossible not to love him in this fictional portrayal of himself.
It’s somewhat difficult to go over much of the supporting cast without spoilers, but rest assured that there aren’t much in the way of weak links. For both children and adults, the characters prove to be quite a lot of fun, especially in how effectively they often play off of Pee-wee himself. It is inevitable though that some sets of characters are probably going to have more appeal than others. There’s a couple of sequences that are either overlong, or not as funny as everything else, and those are bound to happen, but there aren’t any truly bad personalities or characters, to compensate.
Again though, it’s all held together wonderfully by Reubens, who could have easily come off as aged and tired in this movie, and yet somehow didn’t, against the odds. Reubens has still got every imaginable ounce of fun and whimsy on display in his best character here, and you will manage to root for him, whether or not you’re familiar with his legacy, or his prior movies or television show.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday has a pretty loose plot structure, but the simplicity works to the movie’s benefit. The entire affair has Pee-wee living life in the fictional town of Fairville, before it’s visited by a mysterious stranger, Joe Manganiello, who befriends Pee-wee at his job in a local diner, and impulsively invites Pee-wee to his birthday party in New York. The entire movie then unfolds with Pee-wee finally breaking out of his comfort zone and taking a journey to New York, which naturally has no shortage of misadventures and ridiculous obstacles.
If you’re already a fan of Pee-wee, you might raise an eyebrow at that plot direction, because it sounds an awful lot like Pee-wee’s original big screen breakout turn in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure from 1985. This is merited, since Pee-wee’s Big Holiday does seem to pull a Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in that it looks to the original breakout storyline, then just makes minor tweaks and largely presents that same story again with new personalities, beyond Pee-wee himself. This does manage to strike a decent balance between novelty and familiarity for those who have already seen the previous Pee-wee movies or television show, though it is a bit of a bummer that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday doesn’t do more to stand out, and it does sometimes feel like it’s still in the shadow of the legacy behind Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
That said though, the movie’s storyline is still frequently surprising, often quite funny, and mercifully doesn’t overstay its welcome, having a pretty speedy 89-minute runtime. It’s a movie that knows what it is, and doesn’t try to be more than it is, and that’s pretty respectable. The modest length allows Pee-wee’s Big Holiday to present its handful of comedic set pieces to the best of its ability, and while the movie might have made an even bigger splash if it had actually put Pee-wee in a new setting or scenario, I suppose that there’s always the likely sequels to start attempting that.
As usual with Pee-wee’s movies, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday also seems to start fresh, and doesn’t have any continuity with the movies that came before it, nor the television series, so you don’t need to have seen the other movies or show to enjoy this offering. It manages to avoid feeling like a bona fide remake of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure too, since the movie’s new set pieces and altered motivation of Joe Manganiello instead of a stolen bicycle, help to create a movie that will still feel distinct enough for returning Pee-wee fans, but will also present a good point of entry for kids or adults who are not familiar with Pee-wee’s prior escapades on movies and television.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is helmed by John Lee, a television writer and director who has done a whole lot of obscure stuff, with his most well-known credit being as a brief writer from Inside Amy Schumer. Lee does have the advantage of teaming with the production crew at Apatow Productions however, with The 40 Year-Old Virgin’s and Trainwreck’s Judd Apatow, and Apatow’s new producing buddy, Paul Rust, fresh off the success of recently-debuting Netflix Original Series, Love back in February, also helping to keep that lovable charm of Pee-wee’s character well intact for his big movie comeback.
Putting aside the Apatow Productions outfit though, Lee still has big shoes to fill in the director’s chair, since he’s following a movie that’s clearly inspired by one of the movies that first shot Tim Burton to success as a director. Lee’s direction manages to be quite competent in comparison, capturing a movie that feels very fun and bubbly, and has enough of a zany cartoon spirit without becoming too off-the-rails. Lee mainly does this by periodically inserting scenes like a rather strange opening of Pee-wee interacting with an E.T.-esque alien in a dream, and occasional intercuts of Pee-wee imagining ridiculous, literally bubbly party scenarios with Joe Manganiello, which work to create some weird, yet effective laughs. The Manganiello fantasies in particular even kind of cutely jab at some of the speculation that Pee-wee Herman might have a bit of a homosexual side, which feels like the most noticeable addition to the movie that Apatow and Rust probably contributed.
What makes Lee really succeed as a director here though is that he manages to organize the movie in a way that yet again bridges the generational gap, and can be easily enjoyed by adults as well as children. Lee works incredibly well with Reubens, who makes even mundane, seemingly one-note jokes become surprisingly funny, and the entire movie has this fantastic sense of charm and energy that makes it very likable, even if you don’t know much about Pee-wee Herman’s prior history. Ultimately, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure feels a little more distinct in its creative weirdness, since Burton went a little further with the character’s stranger side in contrast to Lee, who never completely wants his movie to leave our recognizable world, but Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is still a strong crowd-pleaser, especially since it’s not afraid to subtly and smartly reference more adult character themes without making the movie unfriendly to children.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a very pleasant surprise. It’s the first time that Netflix has truly delivered an original movie that didn’t have the aftertaste of disappointment. In fact, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday should stand as a good example of the kind of original movies that Netflix should be trying to court; Movies without that sense of grand spectacle that people would clearly rather experience in a theatre, but movies that also have an extra air of creativity, risk and experimental ideas that wouldn’t necessarily thrive the most in a traditional theatrical market, and are nonetheless effective at broadening the minds and tastes of modern audiences.
That’s what Pee-wee’s Big Holiday fits into, ultimately finding the perfect niche in its Netflix release, as opposed to actually competing with March’s massive box office heavyweights in theatres such as Zootopia and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Fans of Pee-wee’s character will no doubt enjoy the movie, which is both a great throwback to Pee-wee’s glory days, and a strong entry point to the character for newcomers both young and old. If you’re not afraid of movies that simply offer a good, silly time, regardless of your age bracket, then you should definitely check this movie out, because it’s pretty entertaining.
It’s really amazing that Pee-wee hasn’t lost his charm, even so many years later, and manages to deliver a movie that even grown adults can easily enjoy and get some good chuckles out of. By the end of it, you’ll probably be genuinely alright with the idea of Pee-wee returning for another movie in the future, on Netflix or otherwise. It goes to show that great characters can often stand the test of time by themselves, when they have a worthy creative team behind them. Hopefully, Pee-wee can return again, for an even bigger comeback in the near future.
- Reubens is great as ever as Pee-wee
- Highly enjoyable supporting actors
- Direction offers nice balance of grounded and surreal
- Recycles the story progression from Pee-wee's Big Adventure
- A few set pieces work better than others