Awww, now I feel really dispirited. Pee-wee Herman’s frivolous adventures may never have been high art, but they were at least always bouncy, fun and creative. After Paul Reubens appeared on stage as the character for years, in 1985 Pee-wee made his big screen debut in PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE. This was also the feature debut of a certain Tim Burton and proved to be a zany treat. Another movie, a TV show and over 20 years in the wilderness later, Pee-wee returns to Netflix in somewhat shambolic fashion and oddly lacking in energy for his BIG HOLIDAY.
Pee-wee Herman takes a break from his idyllic small-town life, job and toys to travel to meet newfound friend and kindred spirit Joe Manganiello in New York for his birthday party.
The first stretch of the film feels very Pee-wee and is an almost direct lift from his Big Adventure, a sequence colourful, playful and pleasingly complete with elaborate contraptions to get Pee-wee out of bed, dressed and (mostly wasted) breakfasted. Mark Mothersbaugh’s jolly score is clearly inspired by Danny Elfman too, and it makes you wonder why Mr Elfman didn’t want to return.
There’s the expected air of silliness about some of it, but sadly a lot of the jokes just don’t land. The plot also gave me major Big Adventure Déjà vu (minus the bike). To be picky, Pee-wee doesn’t even really go on holiday (this character going somewhere for leisure a-la Jacques Tati might have been amusing), he just meanders across the country to attend a party. I’ll admit that it’s a bizarre but amusing reference that the women who briefly kidnap Pee-wee en route (Jessica Pohly, Stephanie Beatriz and Alia Shawkat) resemble the gals from Russ Meyer’s FASTER, PUSSYCAT! KILL! KILL! but elsewhere the sense of imagination is sorely lacking. A scene midway through where a farmer’s numerous randy daughters try to seduce their bow-tied guest in particular just feels wrong. I see Pee-wee as an asexual being and his relationships should be kept platonic and innocent where possible.
There is more imagination and deranged wit in a single episode of PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE than there is in the entire runtime of his latest big(ish) screen adventure. Where are all the surreal asides and the sense of unrestrained anarchy? As soon as Pee-wee sets off on his state-spanning trip the film just settles in and seems to go through the motions. It’s all just a bit lifeless and uninspired.
Don’t get me wrong, Reubens looks great for a man of 63, and he admirably tries to slip back into Pee-wee’s well-worn slip-ons. He’s still got the vitality, the energy of a toddler and the right jerky physical control for the character, but the voice has not aged well. Where’s the shrill honking laugh and stroppy whining when things don’t go his way? The reason Pee-wee makes such a strong connection with viewers is that he inherently sweet but also throws his toys out of the proverbial pram when he feels he’s been mistreated no matter what age he actually is. Here Pee-wee doesn’t exactly feel like he’s grown up but he’s certainly not as bouncy and irreverent as he used to be.
I feel that most long-running stories should evolve with the times. Pee-wee should not, and to be fair he still feels caught in his very particular time capsule. But if you’re committed to bringing back your most successful and self-defining character after a long absence, you need to bring him back with pizazz, to make your audience realise what it was that they missed so much. As it is, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday reminds you all-too-infrequently of what makes the character so unique and what makes spending some more time with him worth it. SSP