So much of what is lovely about a Pee-wee Herman film are the surprises of both the people and locations he encounters, and because of that, instead of doing a standard review of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday—the character’s first theatrical film since 1988’s lackluster Big Top—I’m going to look at what is appealing about the character and whether or not fans of his 80s films should join this ride. Plot and characters will be discussed lightly, but the goal is to maintain the many surprises.
The appeal of Paul Reubens’ Pee-wee Herman as a character is a little hard to pin down. He’s an ageless grown man who wears a suit that’s too small, and whose every movement (or method of waking up or getting to work) is a big gesture of wonderment and laughter. His playhouse is akin to a life-size version of the 1963 board game Mouse Trap, where a ball drops from a plunger through a bathtub, down various plastic switchbacks before dropping the net on a mouse. Essentially, he’s beloved by his small town community in the same manner that one cheers on a mascot at a sporting event: as a temporary diversion during a time-out in the game.
But the appeal of Pee-wee Herman as a cinematic device is undeniable. His road trip adventures are like Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels for a generation of kids and adults who were raised on Saturday morning cartoons, and whose cereal boxes dumped out plastic spy toys and imitation fruit.
In Sturges’ aforementioned pre-WWII US film, a movie director of low-brow escapist films poses as a hobo in an attempt to learn about suffering, so that he can make an arty movie. He hops on trains, sits at campfires, and visits the small towns that dot America’s highway system, but all that he learns is a misguided Hollywood wish-fulfillment that justifies that the films he makes provide a necessary diversion for the poor. In both Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and the new Big Holiday, Herman sets out on a trip across America, and the people he encounters along the way are so touched by his innocence and joie de vivre that they all show up at a movie premiere about his adventures, or tune into a live news event about his peril. He provides a diversion for the less adventurous.
Pee-wee is someone we might call a misfit, except he always fits in his world and is beloved by everyone he meets. In this way, Pee-wee is wish-fulfillment for any viewer who feels the impulse to be different, and to know that their existence can touch so many people just by being who they are. We might not necessarily feel akin to Pee-wee, but we’d like that over-the-top reverence.
Therein lies what both children and adults alike love about Pee-wee Herman: Nearly everyone he encounters are adults who act like they’re played by a ten-year-old’s idea of an adult, but are still concerned about ten-year-old things. In Big Adventure, that adventure is started by an adult man, Francis, who tells Pee-wee that for his birthday his dad said he could have whatever he wanted, and what he wants is Pee-wee’s special bicycle. When Pee-wee turns down a wad of money from Francis, his bike is later stolen and he sets out across the vast American landscape in an attempt to find it—running into the Hell’s Angels, a woman who wants to move to Paris, and a hobo who can’t stop singing songs.
In Big Holiday, Pee-wee is still ageless, except that universal 10-year-old vantage point has been upped to, say, 13. Joe Manganiello is a stranger on a motorbike who rolls into town and discovers that he has a lot in common with Pee-wee. Manganiello is a massive man with a naturally warm demeanor, and he approaches this specimen as the embodiment of a 13-year-old’s idea of a man’s man: having some swagger, some jukebox sensibility, some born to be wild-ness, and a desire to drink root beer perhaps only because it has the word “beer” in it. The physical juxtaposition between the two new friends does fulfill the audience’s wishes that bulky behemoths and spindly misfits could not only be friends, but also have similar interests. The adventure in Big Holiday is similarly kickstarted by a child/teen’s reverence for birthdays, as Pee-wee is invited to the “birthday party of the century” many states away, and flying is forbidden because the friend wants Pee-wee to “live a little” and “learn about himself” out on the road.
Just like Big Adventure, Big Holiday has some truly delightful sketches amidst the adventure. Without giving much away, there are filmmaking nods to Russ Meyer’s cult classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, on-the-lam hideouts with the Amish, and a truly divine entrance and exit by Diane Salinger (who played Simone in Big Adventure, but is not reprising her role here).
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure was Tim Burton’s first feature-length film. Reubens had selected him after seeing Frankenweenie, a black-and-white short film that grappled with loss, dead animals, and a child’s desire to be a mad scientist. In retrospect, this marriage between director and subject makes perfect sense. Burton would go on to make a career from portraits of imaginative misfits whose ability to dream is road-blocked by people who don’t accept them for who they are. But Burton’s first feature adventure was someone the audience might call a misfit, but is never road-blocked and is universally accepted everywhere the winds take him. How novel!
Part of the reason Big Holiday is a glorious return for Pee-wee Herman is because Reubens (and producer Judd Apatow and co-writer Paul Rust) got the right person to direct the film. Like Burton before him, this is John Lee’s first feature-length film, but his own previous creations (much darker, similar to Burton) perfectly skip to the Lou of Herman the character. Lee was the co-creator of Wonder Showzen, the bonkers cult TV show that took aspects of a children’s afternoon special—puppets, kids shouting things they learned, etc.—and doused it in adult toxins of sex, drugs, physical abuse and acknowledgement of slavery. The result was always either hilarious or completely off-putting.
Now that might not sound like Pee-wee, but if you’ve seen Wonder Showzen you can see fingerprints of that program on Big Holiday. And it works — there are some hilarious hallucinations, a little more awareness of sexuality, and certain jokes that go to their full completion (creating a little extra cringe). The humor and desires (for instance Pee-wee is in a rock band, has a few fits, and is told by Manganiello to break some hearts) are slightly more teenaged, but it never goes too far.
Pee-wee himself hasn’t really grown up, and the makeup to make us believe as such is astounding (although there is an awkward kiss—even though it’s platonic—since we were introduced to this character in 1980), but Big Holiday is a big win for the character because instead of completely retreading the Pop Tart wholesomeness, it updates ever so slightly, without fully catering to the comedy of now. It’s a delicate balance, done with an obvious care for the character by all involved. Some adventures in Big Holiday play better than others (there’s a musical number that falls entirely flat), but it’s a delightful ride for anyone who loved his previous Big Adventure. And, it shows that the character can adapt and still exude his original charm.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday opens in select US theaters and will also be available on Netflix worldwide, Friday, March 18.