Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a Fine Tale of a Boy and His Joe Manganiello

By  · Published on March 18th, 2016

Fans of Pee-wee Herman have been waiting a long time for a new movie starring the character, and Pee-wee’s Big Holiday doesn’t disappoint unless that anticipation is unrealistic. If anyone was expecting anything but a mix of the familiar and more light comedy on a made-for-TV scale, that’s too bad.

The new feature, produced for Netflix by Judd Apatow harkens back to the beloved 1985 Pee-wee showcase Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and delivers something of a rehash with a twist. Where that movie was about a boy and his bicycle, this one is about a boy and his Joe Manganiello.

The actor, playing “himself,” is the driving force of another road trip plot, much like the character’s prized bike was 31 years ago. But unlike the bike, Manganiello isn’t kidnapped. He shows up into Pee-wee’s little town of Fairville, a place seemingly trapped in the Eisenhower era, and after they hit it off Manganiello invites the man-boy to his birthday party in New York City.

In this story, Pee-wee (Paul Reubens) has only left his town once, for a trip to Salt Lake City that wound up with him nearly dead. So, no, this isn’t a sequel to Big Adventure any more than 1988’s Big Top Pee-wee is. There’s no acknowledgement of the plots of those movies nor the Saturday morning series Pee-wee’s Playhouse or anything else. Except in the sense that it winks to their fans on occasion.

Like the previous two features, Big Holiday begins with a dream, this one involving an E.T.-like alien whom Pee-wee has befriended, foreshadowing Manganiello as a similar sort of outsider landing upon the isolated world of Fairville. Adhering more closely to Big Adventure, the new movie follows with an extensive Rube Goldberg machine-filled morning routine.

Later, on the road, Pee-wee’s adventures include another criminal – or trio of criminals (Alia Shawkat, Jessica Pohly and Stephanie Beatriz – who sidetrack his plans. There’s a local girl with an unrequited crush, silly disguises and punny novelty gags, a more macho man wearing the iconic grey suit and red bow tie, Diane Salinger (“Simone” in Big Adventure) saying, “Au revoir, Pee-wee!” and even snakes.

And of course, eventually Pee-wee gets to the Big Apple to be reunited with his MacGuffin of a man but before that can happen there’s another big ordeal that brings all the characters we’ve met along the way back on screen to see what’s happened. Yet this isn’t really a remakequel, and not just because it’s not actually a sequel. It’s just formatted for our comfort.

Unfortunately, there’s not much that’s new that is as memorable as anything in Pee-wee’s previous vehicles. The new characters, including a farmer (Hal Landon Jr.) with nine daughters, each with their eye on their bow-tied guest, an inventive traveling salesman (Patrick Egan), a cave-dwelling mountain man (Brad William Henke), an Amish pair (Christopher Heyerdahl and Leo Fitzpatrick) and Salinger’s Katherine Hepburn-by-way-of-Cate Blanchett styled heiress, come and go in flat episodic manner with little impact on the story.

That still doesn’t make for a disappointing effort. There’s a lot of joy to be felt with Big Holiday, though maybe not for any newcomers. If you love Pee-wee as a character, you’ll love him and his chuckles again here. He sounds older and comes off as a bit more cynical and cranky at times, but he looks amazingly the same, and much of the time I felt he was directly transplanted from the 1980s using actual magic.

There is only one Pee-wee Herman, and Big Holiday hints at just how special he is through a couple of reflexive nods. One involves another character named Pee-wee. The other is a character who is aligned in many ways, particularly in his choice of favorite candy, but definitely not in physical form.

Big Holiday is likewise comparable to past Pee-wee movies in name and content but on its surface it is its own thing, and just fine from start to finish. Nostalgic love aside, that’s really all Big Adventure is, too, albeit with more cineaste-friendly influences by way of a more inspired and visionary director like Tim Burton.

The director here is John Lee, a veteran of odd-humored yet regularly brilliant TV programs like Wonder Showzen and Broad City making his feature debut. Working from a script by Reubens and Paul Rust (Arrested Development, Love), he probably should have gotten more laughs than smiles, tried more risks – the only notable one being an over-extended and, depending on the viewer, potentially excruciating bit with Pee-wee slowly depleting the air out of a balloon – rather than playing things safe.

Pee-wee as a character could have been fine in any circumstances, as out there as they might have taken it. He’s been through a show with talking chairs and clocks, after all, and he’s always shone through as the most interesting thing on screen. Here there are just fewer accessories and distractions.

Or maybe the background is just too much of the familiar, not enough newly imaginative components. Like many nostalgic resurrections, Pee-wee’s latest seems to be narrowly informed by just the past works, while the original movie, as derivative as it may be, was born out of so much more.

Perhaps there can be more later? Maybe Big Holiday is just a nice way of bringing Pee-wee back, easing him into the new century – never mind his return to the stage and TV guest appearances that came first; we’re talking full screen stories – for both fans and any newbies who embrace the character.

If so, welcome back, PW! If not, try again. Either way, I look forward to Pee-wee’s next adventure.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.