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‘Pee-wee’s Big Holiday’ Reviews: Back on the Bike

'Pee-wee's Big Holiday' Reviews: Back on the Bike

“You know I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new,” explains the hero of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday,” which has just been made available on Netflix and in a small handful of theaters. The movie, written by Reubens and Paul Rust, dictates that Paul Reubens’ iconic, charcoal-suited manchild will leave his small-town home behind, encountering a wide swath of all-American oddballs en route from idyllic, anachronistic Fairville to the equally mythic New York City. But while “Big Holiday” preaches the importance of getting outside of your comfort zone to “live a little,” the movie itself never strays from the territory marked out by Reubens’ previous big-screen outings. For a big adventure, it feels awfully small.

“Big Holiday” has the misfortune to arrive not long after Shout Factory’s glorious Blu-rays of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” which 30 years after its inception remains one of the most radical children’s entertainments ever put on the air. With an African-American cowboy and a homoerotic bodybuilder among its cast of regular characters, and behind-the-scenes contributions from avant-garde figures like Gary Panter and The Residents, it was and remains a mind-boggling act of subversion that still plays as straight-up delight for six-year-olds. (I have proof.) Reubens and director Tim Burton found a new context for Pee-wee’s weirdness in “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” grounding him in a more specific kind of arrested childhood: Here was an (apparently) grown man who still eats sugar cereal for breakfast, and whose most prized possession is the kind of bike Opie Taylor might have ridden to the general store.

In the 1980s, Pee-wee was a rarity. But the desire to extent the pleasures of childhood long into adulthood is now a dominant culture force, exemplified by Netflix’s nostalgia-driven development slate. “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” may not be quite as cynical a cash-in as “Fuller House,” but it’s a difference of degree, not kind. Pee-wee’s cross-country adventure yields a few memorable moments, the most inspired of which involves an Amish community and a squealing balloon — start at 59:30 and watch for three minutes — but for the most part its purpose is to remind viewers of earlier, better incarnations. Opening with a lengthy “Big Adventure” homage in which a linked array of Rube Goldberg devices gets Pee-wee out of bed is an immediate sign that “Big Holiday’s” main goal is to make its audience feel comfortable, and it accomplishes that modest goal. But it’s not a good sign when a movie makes you feel nostalgic for its predecessors while you’re watching it. The double vision is distracting.

“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” isn’t terrible, exactly: Reubens seamlessly slips into his grey suit and red bow tie, with digital de-aging further blurring the line between past and present, and Joe Mangianello and Alia Shawkat prove to be charming foils, adults who are nonetheless drawn to Pee-wee’s childish ways. It’s a capable but uninspired run-through that’s less a revival than a brand extension. 

Reviews of “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday”

Justin Lowe, Hollywood Reporter

Co-written by Reubens and Apatow collaborator Paul Rust (Netflix series “Love”), “Big Holiday’s” episodic road-trip script is a good fit for the film’s sketch-based humor. Lee’s fast-paced, uncluttered style seems likely to hold the attention of young viewers for a while at least, as Pee-wee repeatedly risks danger and courts public humiliation in his comedic attempts to reunite with his best buddy. Don’t expect a wholesale return of the wacky original “Playhouse” characters (distinguished by a lineup of talking, inanimate objects and puppets that lent the series a consistently surreal tone) or the same level of winky ironic humor; this is an all-new outing more in the spirit of “Big Adventure.”

Eric Goldman, IGN

From the start, it’s clear “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” is meant to evoke “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” in a, ahem, big way. There may not be a stolen bike motivating him, but ultimately, the point is to get Pee-wee on the road, interacting with different types of people across America. It’s a bit disappointing to have the scenario be so similar to that classic film, as it seems like plenty of other storylines could have been developed that weren’t so closely aligned (even putting Pee-wee in a different country would have shook things up a bit more). However, regardless, the very good news is that “Pee-wee’s big Holiday” is a satisfying, funny movie for Pee-wee fans that once more captures what makes this inspired character work.

Erik Adams, A.V. Club

Reubens and his collaborators appreciate the allure of the familiar, but they also understand its limitations. When “Big Holiday” mimics “Big Adventure,” it’s in an “any note you can reach, I can go higher” fashion: Its Rube Goldberg contraptions spill out of the Herman residence and into the streets of Fairville, and though Mark Mothersbaugh’s instrumental score resembles Danny Elfman’s compositions forBig Adventure, it ups their Raymond Scott quotient. There’s no frame as singularly stirring as Pee-wee’s nocturnal encounter with the Cabazon Dinosaurs; instead, that epic scale is translated to extended comic set-pieces that boldly challenge the “funny, then not funny, then way funnier than it was before” limits of The Rake Effect. “Big Holiday” may be a sequel in spirit only, but it definitely subscribes to the “like the first, but bigger” philosophy of other big-screen follow-ups.

Tim Grierson, The Wrap

Both mocking and paying homage to the stifling conformity of 1950s America, Pee-wee’s weirdo-retro universe has, on its surface, always seemed genial and harmless, an assumption wickedly undercut by Reubens’ devilish mixture of earnest sentiment and smiling, screw-loose anarchy. The casual interplay of childlike innocence and sneakily adult innuendo gave “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” its air of sophistication, and that tonal combo is alive and well in “Big Holiday.” It comes through most vividly, and touchingly, during Pee-wee’s run-in with Pepper (Jessica Pohly), Bella (Alia Shawkat) and Freckles (Stephanie Beatriz), three va-va-va-voom bank robbers who look like they’ve stepped straight out of a Russ Meyer film. But they’re no mere sex objects, and just like everyone Pee-wee encounters along the way, they exist happily in their own loopy little realm, sometimes the butt of a joke but never judged or scorned by our kindly hero. (And when one of them ends up falling for Pee-wee, it’s as unexpected as it is understandable.) Socialites, rugged outdoorsmen, the Amish: They’re all part of the crazy-quilt design of this film’s portrait of America, and what’s most gratifying is how inconclusive that portrait is.

Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times

Fans will be relieved to know that the gray-suited perma-boy has not matured; that he still loves milkshakes, sweet rides and the flatulent sound of a slowly deflating balloon. But unfortunately the fictional world around Pee-wee hasn’t evolved either, and a conceit that seemed subversively weird in the 1980s when Reubens was at the height of his popularity has lost much of its oomph. Part of the problem may be that in 2016 Pee-wee is still boxing an opponent who long ago called it quits: a stiff, suppressive culture. In his groundbreaking stage show that played on HBO starting in 1981, his joyous Saturday morning children’s program on CBS and his two previous feature films starring the character, Reubens’ best trick was his ability to simultaneously mock and delight in the creepy cheer of 1950s children’s TV performers, and in so doing send up a brand of conservatism that was dominant at the time. When Reagan was president, Wall Street was booming and flag-waving patriotism ruled, the simmering anger under Pee-wee’s giggle played as hilarious rebellion.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

While some viewers may see Pee-wee through the lens of nostalgia, in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” also hints at the possibility that Pee-wee simply doesn’t belong in today’s fast-paced world. In his most adult role to date, Reubens surfaced in Todd Solondz’s 2009 dramedy “Life During Wartime” as the ghost of a depressed man who committed suicide. While there’s never any indication that Pee-wee might face a similar fate, he does seem like a specter of his former self, still going through the motions of an immutable existence. Needless to say, there’s an intrinsic melancholy to Pee-wee’s outrageous nature, but the movie’s never savvy enough to parse it too deeply. Notwithstanding his peculiar quasi-sexual attraction to Manganiello, nothing in “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” really assesses the attributes that ostracize him. He’s living the dream so well it’s not possible for him to wake up.

Bryan Bishop, Verge

While Pee-wee screened in a theater for press, most people won’t ever be watching it in that setting. They’ll simply turn it on at home one night, no doubt tempted throughout the evening to check their phone, get something from the kitchen, or shoot off a couple of quick emails. And in that context, “Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” seems like a perfect fit for the Netflix viewing experience. You need to step away for a second? Not a problem; the episodic nature of the plot ensures you won’t miss much. Feel the need to check Twitter? No biggie; the movie will have moved on to another joke soon enough.

Matt Singer, ScreenCrush

“Pee-wee’s Big Holiday” breaks no rules (except perhaps when it gently hints that the attraction between Pee-wee and Joe is more than platonic). And it certainly doesn’t let its hero do anything new. It’s knowingly and deliberately designed to evoke the Pee-wee of old, right down to the Rube Goldberg machine that wakes him up in the morning. Director John Lee (“Wonder Showzen,” “Inside Amy Schumer”) capably captures the action, but does little to distinguish his Pee-wee from Tim Burton’s. Despite all his yearning to break free of his old, stale life, Pee-wee still hasn’t grown up.

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