When Pee-wee’s Big Holiday begins, you almost can’t believe what you’re seeing. This is in part due to the sheer spectacle of creativity that’s happening before your eyes, and also because there’s another Pee-Wee movie that’s finally happening!
Pee-Wee has had a long and complicated relationship with cinema, as Paul Reubens’ character enjoyed a wild first feature film with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure in 1984 (directed by Tim Burton, no less), and then an admirable but much less beloved follow-up in 1988, Big Top Pee-wee. It’s been over a decade since Reubens has been discussing Pee-wee’s return to the big screen, and it’s exactly the sort of project that could manage to crumble under the weight of its own expectations—no matter how good it might end up being. Miraculously though, or perhaps due to the magic of Reubens’ endlessly optimistic character himself, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday rises to every occasion and marks a triumphant return for the eternally youthful character.
Moving past the fact that this movie is finally a reality, the larger question becomes why do we need it? There’s been an avalanche of properties rebooting, sequel-izing, and spinning off, and Pee-wee could have easily fallen into that bloated category. Thankfully, not only does Pee-wee’s Big Holiday justify its existence by its strong message about going out of your comfort zone and the power of friendship, but the new people on board behind-the-scenes—Paul Rust, in the case of writing, and John Lee, in the case of directing—couldn’t be more accomplished at their jobs.
Many people hold Burton’s Pee-wee up on a pedestal, and it is a great film, but the beginning of Big Holiday honestly conjures up the how’d they do that movie magic chills that the original Muppet Movie gives me (also: Give Lee a crack at the Muppets, too, Hollywood).
Big Adventure saw Pee-wee Rube Goldberg-ing his home in a bewildering explosion of imagination, but in Big Holiday Pee-wee Rube Goldbergs the entire town. It’s the perfect introduction to this movie, and Lee, Rust, and Reubens’ vision is so tremendous here that I daresay that it out-Burtons Burton. Hell, let this guy take a stab at Beetlejuice 2.
The story here—which is perfectly simple, like it should be—sees Pee-wee seeking to leave the security blanket of Fairville for the first time and take a leap for once in his life. The beautiful thing is that the muse that inspires Pee-wee to take such a journey is Joe Manganiello—as himself—with the shiny prize at the end of the rainbow that Pee-wee’s working towards being his birthday party, no less. Look, Joe Manganiello is someone that I never gave a single thought about before (and I’ve watched all of True Blood), but his performance here is a goddamn revelation.
His introduction is absolutely perfect with him essentially playing a variation on Pee-wee. And it’s so, so good (wait until you see him in the suit). He honestly looks like he’s having more fun than Reubens. Apparently Manganiello and Reubens are friends in real life, having met through weird circumstances, which makes the film’s message about the power of friendship all the more poignant. In the largest stretch, this film is almost an adaptation of the true story of their friendship, which is really kind of beautiful.
Pee-wee’s previous two films both dealt with him entering “the real world” in a sense, and Big Holiday feels like it’s going to go much in the same direction. However, the difference here—and it’s why I think this film succeeds so well—is that the message being pushed is that everyone is Pee-wee in a sense. Everyone that Pee-wee encounters on his journey is eccentric in their own ways, just like our bow-tied hero. This starts with Joe—who we see could be separated from Pee-wee at birth since they’re so identical—but as it continues it establishes the idea that even if you leave your comfort zone, that doesn’t mean that you’re alone.
While something like this may feel potentially repetitive, for me it was a delight to see all of these beautiful weirdos that Pee-wee keeps colliding with. Lee really gets to show off his talents here, whether it’s with the eccentric traveling salesman’s car magnets, the recluse of Grizzly Bear Daniels, or the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-esque flying car that’s briefly boarded. My absolute favorite of these detours is Pee-wee crashing with a bunch of people en route to a hairstyling competition; it creates one of the best visuals out of the movie. There’s also an extended Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! homage running throughout the film, and so for a consummate Russ Meyer fan, that was just the icing on the cake to all of this silliness.
I think it’s just too ironic that John Lee, coming from the satirical Wonder Showzen that was lampooning programs like Pee-wee’s Playhouse in the first place, can now be in the driver’s seat for the property. Even some of Lee’s The Heart, She Holler styled depravity gets a chance to be let loose towards the end, with the movie also never going too far as to override Pee-wee’s tone. Also, this may not have Danny Elfman providing his iconic musical talents, but the always-reliable Mark Mothersbaugh delivers a hell of the score at the same time.
It really doesn’t feel like Pee-wee’s Big Holiday misses a beat, and its way of subverting its standard structure in a style that also justifies its existence is inspired stuff. I can’t imagine that this will be the last that we see of the character, with hopefully all of these untapped scripts of Reubens’ finally getting to see some much-needed light. All I know is that Pee-wee is back strong, and you’re going to love every second of it.
I know you are, but what am I?
Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is now available on Netflix.