On the return of Pee-Wee Herman

Tim Burton is not on board for the new Netflix original Pee-Wee movie, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday. But the cult character has an equally influential benefactor these days: Judd Apatow.

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In all the hoopla last year over the new addition to the Star Wars series more than a decade on from the last instalment, it may have escaped some people’s attention that another franchise was being revived after an even longer interval. It has been 31 years since a young upstart named Tim Burton made his feature debut bringing the bizarre US television character Pee-Wee Herman, created and played by Paul Reubens, to cinema screens in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

Pee-Wee on TV was already well within the parameters of the oddball: with his shrunken grey suit, red bow tie, white tassled loafers and even whiter Pierrot-esque face, he occupied that indistinct zone between child, man and performance art. His nasal voice and honking laugh seemed cultivated to annoy every bit as much as his playground catchphrases (“I know you are, but what am I?” repeated ad infinitum). But Reubens’s single-minded – some might say bloody-minded – focus on playing Pee-Wee utterly straight (if that’s not the wrong word for a character who teeters on the brink of camp) was vital to the character’s success. Combined with Burton’s doolally visual sensibility, which was still only then in its infancy, it resulted in a movie of unusual originality and imagination.

Burton is not on board for the new Pee-Wee movie, Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday, a Netflix original presentation which debuted on the streaming service last week. (Nor was he part of the lacklustre second film, Big Top Pee-Wee, from 1988.)

But Pee-Wee has an equally influential benefactor these days: Judd Apatow, the one-man comedy factory whose films include Knocked Up and Trainwreck. Apatow produced Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday and it is his adoration of Pee-Wee that got the project off the ground in the first place: he approached Reubens after a live show a few years ago, brandishing a Polaroid he had taken of the comedian more than 30 years ago, when Apatow himself was a 16-year-old comedy hopeful.

Happily, Apatow hasn’t imposed his own stamp on the material, unless you count the central bromance between Pee-Wee and the actor Joe Mangeniello, star of True Blood and the Magic Mike movies.

But then there has always been a homoerotic element to Pee-Wee – remember the sexual frisson when he posed as the wife of an escaped criminal in the original? The two become fast friends when Mangeniello strolls in seductive slow-motion into the diner where Pee-Wee is working as a short order cook. And it is Pee-Wee’s determination to attend his new pal’s birthday party on the other side of the country in New York City that is the catalyst for his new journey.

In Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, he made it all the way to Hollywood in pursuit of his stolen bike (think of that movie as a candy-coloured Bicycle Thieves with added stop-motion monsters) but that has all been forgotten in the new film, in which it is claimed that he has never set foot outside Fairville, a town stuck in the 1950s.

“You know I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new!” he chirrups when a travel agent tries to entice him into visiting Morocco or Mexico by placing a fez and then a sombrero on his head in quick succession. Could it be that Pee-Wee has become a symbol for the stereotypically entrenched American, clinging to a rosy past that never really existed, and barricaded against fresh experiences? It looks that way. Mangeniello lays it on the line: “You’re stuck in a rut, Pee-Wee!”

The adventure which ensues has as much nuttiness as you would expect, even if it lacks the innovative governing vision that Burton brought to the original. (The director this time around is John Lee, whose CV includes work for the Adult Swim comedy network.)

But it can boast crisp, delicious cinematography from the excellent Tim Orr. And what it has in abundance is the sort of delirious spectacle that is integral to Pee-Wee’s world – the intricate Heath Robinson-style contraption that propels Pee-Wee out of his house on skis and through the neighbourhood in a miniature car, or the daft interlude with a group of travelling stylists who have created a United States of Hair.

There was always a strange anxiety present in Pee-Wee about the adult world, and the particularly sexual demands that it brings; you could go so far as to say that the entire character is born out of Pee-Wee’s attempt to arrest his own development.

This is more in evidence than ever in the new film, where Pee-Wee’s key encounters are with ravenous groups of women. The first is a trio of vampish bank robbers that would have done Russ Meyer proud; next he has to contend with a farmer’s nine daughters, each of whom is competing to be his bride. (In one scene straight out of a horror movie, they are crawling through the window and breaking down his bedroom door.)

He does eventually do the unthinkable and actually kiss a woman. But relax: she only becomes attractive to him once he discovers that she is his namesake. That’s so Pee-Wee.

Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday is available now on Netflix.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.