Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is here, only 31 years after Paul Reubens’ quirky boy-man character first went on the road in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
So is it any good, and does it do anything particularly new? Well the answer is both yes and no. The movie is tremendously silly, laugh out loud fun – stupid, surreal, oddball, daft and generally just silly. Very silly indeed. But plot-wise not a lot has changed except for the direction in which our hero travels. As mentioned when the trailer first dropped, Big Holiday is something of a reboot as in the Pee-wee Cinematic Universe it appears that Paul Reuben’s childlike character has now never left his hometown of Fairview – which is where the story kicks off.
Reubens, his co-writer Paul Rust and director John Lee are at pains to reintroduce Pee-wee’s world in exactly the same way we were originally introduced to him in Big Adventure – waking up, getting up, starting the day with all the machines and contraptions designed to help him on his way. This new sequence is a joy – bigger and more complex than Big Adventure, but utterly in the same spirit. And for children coming to the Pee-wee Cinematic Universe for the first time, if they are fans of Wallace and Gromit they will be in gadget heaven.
In Big Adventure we followed Pee-wee travelling cross-country as he sought his prized bicycle which had been stolen. That tale led him to Hollywood where his story was turned into a movie-within-the-movie starring James Brolin. This time Pee-wee is challenged to broaden his horizons by a visitor into the diner in which he is working as a short-order chef. That visitor is Joe Manganiello, star of True Blood and Magic Mike appearing as himself, who has arrived in town on a motorbike. It turns out that Joe Manganiello and Pee-wee are unexpectedly similar in many ways – not least down to their love of root-beer barrel chocolates. They become instant best friends and Manganiello, stunned that his new chum has never left the town of Fairview, invites our hero to New York for his birthday party in just five days time.
And so, the journey begins, but this time in the other direction to the earlier film, Eastwards to the Big Apple. Along the way Pee-wee meets all sorts, gets embroiled in a bank heist escape, is nearly forcibly married, has an adventure with hairdressers and takes part in all sorts of other surreal and hilarious hi-jinks. So there are similarities in structure, the movie is made up of a sequence of sketches and interconnected events, but this is more than a mere retread.
Netflix describes the movie as Quirky and Family-Friendly – and that’s certainly true. This is a film that children can love, and adults like me who saw the original movie in the cinema as a kid will find loads to enjoy. Firstly, it is very funny. There are all sorts of adult cultural nods too which will ring bells for the grown ups in the audience but go over the heads of the children watching – for example the participants in the bank heist are all dressed in incredibly similar costumes to the stars of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! which is not something you can say of many kid’s films.
What’s particularly unique to Pee-wee is that although he’s childlike, he’s not an innocent – he can be petulant, angry, selfish and snarky – but he does see the best in everyone he meets. And as cynical as one may be as an audience member, there is something oddly refreshing in that. Paul Reubens is in his mid-sixties now, and the filmmakers have gone to great pains to de-age him so the character looks virtually the same as he did 30 years ago. Through painstaking lighting, makeup and the magic of digital retouching Pee-wee genuinely looks the same age as he did in 1985.
There’s something possibly unsettling in that, but the oddity of the manchild star was always the big draw, and he was always slightly bizarre.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday succeeds as more than just a simple retread because it is full to bursting with new jokes and situations. It’s not desperately complicated, and doesn’t need to be. Its chief requirement is to be very funny and it achieves that aim in spades. There aren’t many movies that could dedicate several minutes to a man releasing air from a balloon for comic effect, and fewer that could actually make it funny.
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is available on Netflix now, and is a highly recommended treat.