NOTE: This review was originally written in 2017, but not published until July 31st, 2023, in lieu of Paul Reubens’ death.
As is the case with a sequel stuck in development hell, be it Ghostbusters III, Bill and Ted 3, or another Pee-wee Herman film, the amount of speculation and news that trickles out about potential scripts gets the minds of fans spinning at the speed of insurmountable expectations. In the case of Pee-wee Herman, Reubens gleamed while discussing scripts for a third film starring his amiable man-child stuck in arrested development. He gushed about a potentially “darker” story for his character; a rise-and-fall narrative with unmistakable references to Reubens’s highly publicized 1991 arrest. He followed it up with another idea in the form of a film adaptation of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, with modern special effects and claymation. I had embarrassingly little knowledge of Pee-wee Herman before a few months ago, when I watched a few episodes of Playhouse before his debut film, and not only do I love the character, I, like many fans, love those ideas as third and final movies for the timeless personality.
Any realistic fan of Pee-wee Herman should’ve seen these tidbits of optimism from Reubens as just that; fragments of information that were likely not going to pan out the way he envisioned and lay dormant for a very longtime. Pee-wee Herman has a strong cult-following, but after Big Top Pee-wee bombed and the Reubens’s largely dropping the character in the following years, no studio was going to shell out even chump-change for a large-scale Pee-wee revival film. Not even a theatrical film would be in their consideration; Pee-wee in 2016 wouldn’t have been enough of a reason for people to put on pants and go to the theater. If they were, perhaps, suggested to watch a new Pee-wee film on their favorite streaming platform one spring evening, that would be a different story. And so would the third film itself.
Low and behold, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday premiered on Netflix in March 2016, a good 28 years after Big Top Pee-wee, under the cannon of Judd Apatow, who produced the picture and distributed it via his own productions company. The result is a production for the small-screen that nonetheless packs in big-screen charms insofar that it keeps the titular character likable and takes minimal risks with material that’s lain dormant for sometime. Reubens doesn’t need a manual on how to play his cherished character in the modern day; it’s as if he got dressed up again and immediately knew the tune well-enough to dance again. His voice might not be quite the same and his expressions might not appear as youthful as they once were, but such nitpicks are likely of little significance to the 63-year-old character-actor, who has done his fans a great service.
Pee-wee is now a resident of Fairville, a comfy town with amiable residents that afford him basic kindness as he holds a job at a local diner. He also is one of the members in a boy-band, at least until the other members barge into his workplace to tell him that they need to quit the band in order to focus more on their studies. After the news leaves him down, he meets actor Joe Manganiello, with whom he connects instantly. While smitten with his eccentric personality, and their mutual love for “root beer barrel candies,” Joe tries to get Pee-wee to leave the bubble that is Fairville by convincing him to come all the way to New York for his birthday party. A hesitant Pee-wee talks himself into embarking on the cross-country journey, and no sooner does he get in the car is he then involved with three female criminals before coming across a farmer trying to marry him off to one of his nine daughters.
It seems that no matter who steps into Pee-wee’s world, they automatically know what face to put on and what tone to assume. Having said that, Joe Manganiello, famous for his supporting roles in the Magic Mike films, knows how to interact with the character rather than someone like Kris Kristofferson, who felt at the mercy of his zeal in the previous film.
This is pure Pee-wee zaniness captured with the sunniest disposition. The film was directed by John Lee, the man behind the short-lived but wildly funny MTV show Wonder Showzen, a demented parody of children’s television shows, particularly Sesame Street. Lee has also served as a primary producer on Adult Swim programs like Delocated and The Heart, She Holler, rendering him a near-perfect choice to direct a live-action comedy with few rules and an exaggerated aura. While Lee and David Gordon-Green’s choice cinematographer Tim Orr capture the nostalgic visuals of Fairville, they wisely leave Reubens and Paul Rust (another Adult Swim name) with story and screenplay duties. This functional separation allows for the most crucial elements of Pee-wee’s world to be sustained and respectfully conveyed by the appropriate individuals. Lee and Orr bring the colorful flavor, and Reubens and Rust assure it’s not simply garnish by fueling it with energetic substance.
I put off Pee-wee Herman for many years, and even when I began indulging in episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse to gear up for the character’s first feature film, I was skeptical. I thought I wouldn’t be able to tolerate more than a few minutes of the dapper man-child and his helium-voice. Then I saw what great, age-appropriate fun his show was. Then I saw what a young Tim Burton managed to do with such a visually deft Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, and even though Big Top Pee-wee felt airless and questionable, I still found charm in its good-graces despite its subpar writing. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday isn’t necessary, but it resurrects the character to leave him with the potential finale him and Reubens deserve — one that is deferential to him, his personality, and both of their respective legacies.
NOTE II: Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Starring: Paul Reubens, Joe Manganiello, Jessica Pohly, Alia Shawkat, Stephanie Beatriz, Brad William Henke, and Hal Landon Jr. Directed by: John Lee.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!