'Pee-wee's Big Holiday': Film Review

Courtesy of Netflix
True to type.

Paul Reubens’ signature character returns to feature film in a new comedic adventure released by streaming service Netflix.

Some 30 years after Pee-wee Herman made his first motion picture appearance in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, writer, producer and star Paul Reubens notches another milestone as Pee-wee’s Big Holiday becomes the first of his memorable character’s vehicles to debut as a Netflix original production.

Tim Burton’s enduringly popular 1985 feature helped propel Reubens’ ascendancy on the CBS Saturday morning kids’ comedy series Pee-wee’s Playhouse and spawned 1988’s feature film sequel Big Top Pee-wee. At the height of his popularity, Reubens was juggling multiple entertainment properties and merchandise lines, but at this belated stage his predictably quirky new feature seems like a rather weak stab at mining any lingering nostalgia for a once-iconic franchise.

The kids’ TV program and both previous films have remained staples of the streaming service, however, so Netflix’s commitment to Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (which will only receive a very brief promotional release in about a dozen theaters) looks like a natural fit. Certainly having producer Judd Apatow attached could boost the movie’s profile, but with such a considerable gap between big-screen appearances, it remains to be seen whether Reubens can leverage a significant number of former fans and also convert a new generation of younger viewers to support the latest family-friendly Pee-wee project.

In his feature filmmaking debut, TV director John Lee (Broad City, Inside Amy Schumer) strategically relies on Reubens to set the tone for Pee-wee’s unique brand of adventure and childlike humor. Anyone familiar with Pee-wee knows how devoted he is to his friends, while bringing the same level of commitment to his job as a fry cook at Dan’s Diner in the 1950s-styled throwback town of Fairville, so it’s no surprise that he’s never actually taken a real vacation. A chance encounter with a stranger (Joe Manganiello) passing through town on his badass motorcycle changes everything when the two unexpectedly hit it off at the diner, bonding over everything from chocolate milkshakes to model-building and root beer-barrel candies. Pee-wee’s new best friend persuades him that it’s time to shake up his routine and live a little, offering him a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to meet up again in less than a week, but Pee-wee will have to temporarily leave Fairville behind to take advantage of the opportunity.

Hitting the road in his vintage Fiat 600 four-seater, Pee-wee begins his solo adventure, soon discovering more excitement than he bargained for when switchblade-wielding bank robbers Pepper (Jessica Pohly), Freckles (Stephanie Beatriz) and Bella (Alia Shawkat) hijack his vehicle for their getaway, taking Pee-wee hostage. They soon relent and release him, then take off with his car, but only after he forms an unbreakable bond with Bella, who reveals that her nickname is Pee-wee. And that’s just the first memorable incident on his epic journey. Along the way to his destination, he’ll also have to confront a family of overly amorous sisters, a disturbingly lonely mountain man (Brad William Henke) and an unqualified socialite pilot (Diane Louise Salinger) with a flying car, among a variety of other colorful characters.

Co-written by Reubens and Apatow collaborator Paul Rust (Netflix series Love), Big Holiday’s episodic road-trip script is a good fit for the film’s sketch-based humor. Lee’s fast-paced, uncluttered style seems likely to hold the attention of young viewers for a while at least, as Pee-wee repeatedly risks danger and courts public humiliation in his comedic attempts to reunite with his best buddy. Don’t expect a wholesale return of the wacky original Playhouse characters (distinguished by a lineup of talking, inanimate objects and puppets that lent the series a consistently surreal tone) or the same level of winky ironic humor; this is an all-new outing more in the spirit of Big Adventure.

Longtime viewers may be satisfied enough that Pee-wee’s signature mannerisms all remain intact, including the chronically uncoordinated body language, ironic facial expressions, high-pitched voice and cackling laughter, all delivered by a man now in his 60s in an overly enthusiastic style intended to entertain the average 10-year-old. The filmmakers employ a combination of practical techniques crafted by Academy Award-winning makeup artist Ve Neill and digital effects to rather convincingly regress Reubens’ age by a couple of decades to achieve the more youthful appearance many still remember from his TV days.

This eerily unnerving process appears to put him in about the same age bracket as his co-stars, who form a fervid chorus of supporters. Manganiello’s performance as Pee-wee’s newly minted BFF registers as especially over-the-top, while Shawkat’s bank robber with a heart of gold helps reprise Pee-wee’s long-standing thematic messages of friendship, tolerance and loyalty with apparent passion.

At one time, this combination of sincerity and quirkiness struck a resounding chord with kids and adults alike, but Big Holiday would likely need to inspire a significant new level of enthusiasm to sustain the plans Reubens has already mentioned for further Pee-wee projects.

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival (Headliners)
Distributor: Netflix
Production companies: A Judd Apatow/Paul Reubens Production

Cast: Paul Reubens, Joe Manganiello, Alia Shawkat, Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz, Tara Buck, Richard Riehle, Brad William Henke, Diane Louise Salinger
Director: John Lee
Screenwriters: Paul Reubens, Paul Rust
Producers: Judd Apatow, Paul Reubens
Executive producers: Joshua Church, Richard Vane
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Dan Butts
Costume designer: Karen Patch
Editor: Jeff Buchanan
Music: Mark Mothersbaugh
Casting director: Victoria Thomas

Not rated, 89 minutes