Pee-wee's Big Holiday review: Today's secret word is 'forgettable'

You'll need a break after this vacation

Pee-wee's Big Holiday doesn't feel very big at all. Although the character's March 18 Netflix debut — and first feature film since 1988's Big Top Pee-wee — sends him from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic, the eternal man-child's travels feel like a string of mildly amusing diversions instead of a grand journey with ramifications.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday begins in the West Coast town of Fairville, where Pee-wee Herman is but one of many absurd townies. In the years since we last saw him, Pee-wee (played by a frighteningly unchanged Paul Reubens) has traded his classic Playhouse for something a little more quaint. But it quickly becomes apparent that time has had only the most minor effects on Pee-wee, who maintains his penchant for silly gadgets, comically bad puns and quick-witted snark.

Big Holiday is going for quantity over quality

The seeming timelessness of the character becomes the central focus, however; Pee-wee tells his friends of his resistance to change. In the film — which seems to operate in a canon in which Pee-wee's Playhouse and movies like Pee-wee's Big Adventure never happened — Pee-wee counters possible life developments by proudly claiming to have never left Fairville — and he never wants to.

That conviction makes sense for a character whose primary trait is his childlike demeanor. But it's one that Pee-wee quickly abandons in a move that undercuts what could have been the film's emotional core. After he meets and befriends a cool guy from the city, portrayed by a game Joe Manganiello, Pee-wee is offered the chance to give up his small town digs for a New York City vacation — an invitation he takes up quickly.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

And so Pee-wee heads off by car to the Big Apple to be a featured guest at his new friend's birthday party. In doing so, the film abandons the semblance of plot it had been building up in Fairville; the viewer is now subject to a series of cross-country hijinks with varying returns.

Unlike his very first outing in Pee-wee's Big Adventure, which remains the high-water mark for the character, Big Holiday is going for quantity over quality. There's no memorable gag here that stands out above the others, nor do most of the characters leave an impression. Manganiello's character works, thanks to the comic dissonance of the actor playing it straight in this ridiculous world, but the recurring girl gang is rarely funny in their myriad appearances. (And the relationship that builds between the babyfaced outlaw played by Alia Shawkat and the 60-plus-year-old Pee-wee is uncomfortable at best.)

What's worse is that, despite the fact that each of these scenes unfolds quickly, the movie feels long. Really, really long. Pee-wee's road trip feels like far more of a slog for the viewer than the traveler himself.

Even a Pee-wee fan who loved Big Adventure and grew up with Playhouse will likely concede that the character can get taxing quickly. In Big Holiday, his less endearing quirks are exacerbated by the film's noncommittal storytelling, in which characters are dropped minutes after they're introduced. It's tiring to watch Pee-wee have the same drawn-out conversations and miscommunications with other oddballs over and over and over and over again.

Pee-wee's Big Holiday

The TV series worked far better than Big Holiday does thanks to its variety: There was a whole cast of characters at play, along with different skits and sketches that sidelined Pee-wee. But the Netflix film has its hero front-and-center for almost its entire duration. Scenes that cut back to Manganiello in New York as he awaits Pee-wee's arrival are when the film is at its best, primarily because they feel like a reprieve. Pee-wee's Big Holiday is anything but for the viewer who must try — and likely fail — to keep up with the spry and always-on Herman.

Sometimes seeing that something or someone you loved as a kid has stayed the same after all these years is comforting. But this film wears out its welcome fast, and those looking to relive their childhood Pee-wee Herman fanaticism are probably better off just rewatching Big Adventure on Netflix for the umpteenth time than dipping into this forgettable revival.