Review: Pee-wee’s ‘Big Holiday’ another wild adventure

Adam Graham Detroit News Film Critic

Same Pee-wee, new adventure.

Nearly 30 years since his last movie, Paul Reubens is back as Pee-wee Herman in the charmingly loopy “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” a throwback to the retro-offbeat Pee-wee of old.

“Holiday,” which premieres today on Netflix, finds the now-63-year-old Reubens still in his signature gray suit, white shoes and red bow tie. Miraculously he looks the same, walks the same and talks the same as the Pee-wee you remember, a special effect that money can’t buy. But several things are different this time around.

Gone is director Tim Burton, whose whacked-out perspective brought a surreal sensibility to 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.” Also missing is Danny Elfman’s iconic “Big Adventure” score, which will probably be stuck in your head just after reading this sentence.

But the essence of Pee-wee remains. He’s an innocent man-child living in his own universe, a 1950s wholesome vision of Americana with a slightly askew slant. He’s a grown-up who holds down a day job but also dreams of building a tree house in his backyard. In a way, he’s the big kid inside us all.

“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” written by Reubens and Paul Rust (the Netflix series “Love”), doesn’t have a whole lot of reverence for the Pee-wee mythology; in this story, Pee-wee’s never been outside his hometown of Fairville, which forsakes a certain big adventure, as well as the actions of 1988’s circus-themed “Big Top Pee-Wee.” “You know I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new,” he says. “Bye!”

Here he’s a short order cook at a diner who is one day visited by Joe Manganiello who, in his best screen role to date, plays a wide-eyed, puerile version of himself. They bond over milkshakes and root beer barrels, and Manganiello invites him to his upcoming birthday party in New York.

Pee-wee hits the road en route to New York and encounters all sorts of eccentric characters along the way: a trio of bank-robbing vixens (“Arrested Development’s” Alia Shawkat is memorable as a grifter who shares the name Pee-wee), a community of Amish folks, a cave-dwelling loner, a group of hair stylists on their way to a hair competition. Diane Salinger, who played Simone in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” shows up as batty high society-type who takes Pee-wee for a ride in her flying car.

Some of the vignettes work better than others; a segment with a farmer and his nine daughters drags and strikes an off-key note. Others are absurdly amusing: Pee-wee entertains the Amish by squeaking the air out of a balloon in a bit that goes on for so long it dares you not to laugh (it’s reminiscent of the scene in “The Simpsons” where Sideshow Bob keeps stepping on rakes, where the comedy is in the unblinking commitment to the gag) and a decidedly un-musical musical number about the wonders of New York City.

All along, Reubens’ charm propels the film. To come back to his Pee-wee character after so long (Reubens did a live theater run as Pee-wee in 2010) could have been an embarrassment, but the Pee-wee character has a timeless quality that is comforting, even in today’s world.

Director John Lee doesn’t have the scope or vision of Tim Burton, and it shows that he’s working on a smaller scale and under tighter constraints. But it’s good to have Pee-wee back, and he makes this unexpected “Holiday” a joyous one.

‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’


Rated TV-PG

Running time: 89 minutes