Saturday, February 29, 2020

Recess: School's Out

One show I had watched in some form growing up was the Disney animated series Recess; though it originally aired as part of the One Saturday Morning block on ABC (before it was rebranded as ABC Kids), I remember watching it via reruns on Toon Disney (prior to its own rebranding as Disney XD), which was one of a few formative animation outlets for me as a child. For those who haven’t seen it, the show revolved around the misadventures of six fourth-graders (T.J., Vince, Gus, Spinelli, Gretchen and Mikey) as they make the most of the school year, with a heavy emphasis on what occurs on the playground during the recess period. During the show’s run, it had received a theatrically-released movie in 2001 known as Recess: School’s Out, however I never ended up actually watching it, and even then, I had only seen it in parts when it ran on TV. After having finally seen the movie in full, on what was coincidentally a few days off from the 19th anniversary of its US premiere no less, and spurred in part by the (as of this writing) recent passing of Jason Davis (Mikey), I found it to be a solid movie that holds up surprisingly well.

At a US military base in the desert, a mysterious group manages to get their hands on a device, with their plans set to begin at Third Street Elementary since it will be empty during the summer. On the last day of the school year, T.J. Detweiler (Andrew Lawrence) has plans for summer vacation, however those plans are ruined when he learns that his friends and almost all the other students are going off to different summer camps the next day. As T.J. tries to entertain himself alone, he happens to spot odd things happening at the school. After his attempts to get help fail, he sees no other choice but to get his friends back together.

The story of Recess: School’s Out isn’t very complex, however this works extremely well in its favor. The movie is written such that prior knowledge of the show isn’t required to understand what’s going on, helped by the fact that it follows a very straightforward plotline and commits to it from beginning to end, as well as the story feeling more substantial than simply an extended episode of the show. What also helps is that, while it is about the core six characters, the additional focus on T.J. also allows the story to feel more focused, providing him with a character arc that ends with him and Principal Prickly (Dabney Coleman) receiving some great character development by the end. In the modern animation climate, a runtime of under 90 minutes is typically a point of criticism, however in the case of this movie, the 84-minute runtime also works for this movie; if it had been any longer, the pacing could've easily dragged at some point.

From left: Vince LaSalle (Rickey D'Shon Collins), Mikey Blumberg (Jason Davis),
T.J. Detweiler (Andrew Lawrence), Gretchen Grundler (Ashley Johnson) (background),
Gus Griswald (Courtland Mead) (foreground), Ashley Spinelli (Pamela Segall)

The movie also features a surprising amount of depth to its story, including a good amount of subtle and clever foreshadowing to later events in the movie. The main antagonist, Dr. Phillium Benedict (James Woods) has a motivation for his actions that makes sense, that being his desire to eliminate both recess and summer vacation, coupled with a backstory that supports this and allows him to feel like part of the Recess universe. There’s also a good amount of well-placed smart humor that provides some small moments of levity without detracting from the larger stakes of the story. I will also admit that, while I do not have a fondness for bodily humor, the one time this movie does use it, in which Mikey belches loud enough to get him and the others spotted while they’re spying in an airduct, is written such that I found it actually funny.

Another thing to note about the story is the state of technology at the time it takes place. For those who don’t know, while it does take place in the modern day, cell phones were more of a luxury item in 2001, when this movie came out, rather than their current status as a more commonplace communications device. While T.J.’s actions would certainly have been different if he had access to a cell phone, he did not, so it’s interesting how the movie presents more clever ways to communicate and capture evidence of the weird goings-on at the school.

The animation is very fluid and holds up well, using the same art style as the TV series while taking advantage of its higher budget to create a more theatrical presentation with more dynamic lighting and camera angles. This allows some smaller moments to stand out as well, such as a minor scene where T.J., after being captured by Dr. Benedict, is silently forced to sit down and you can feel his resistance to do so. Notably, there are only two moments where the movie uses (cell-shaded) CG to allow for more sweeping camera shots of Third Street Elementary at the beginning and the end. While those shots are done pretty well, the CG hasn’t entirely aged well and looks very obvious when compared to the other hand-drawn elements.

The voice cast for returning characters in Recess: School’s Out is the same as the series proper, which allows it to feel like a natural extension of the show. While the show itself ended up going to a Season 6, this movie came out around Season 5, however this is still ample time for the voice actors to have gotten comfortable in their roles, which shows in their performances in the movie. James Woods has had a prolific acting career both within and outside of animation, though Disney fans may recognize him best as the voice of Hades in the Hercules and Kingdom Hearts franchises. Regardless, his acting abilities give him a commanding presence in this movie as original character Dr. Benedict, convincingly portraying a non-comedic villainous character with a wide range of emotions.

James Woods has a commanding presence as Dr. Phillium Benedict (right).

The movie makes good use of both licensed and original music, with the main Recess theme serving as a leitmotif for its original score. As for the Recess theme itself, I will freely admit that, as a fan of the show, hearing it again during the opening credits after over a decade was enough to get me right in the nostalgia. As for the licensed music, the movie manages to make good use of non-standard music during rather appropriate moments, such as the song “One” by Three Dog Night when T.J. is left by himself after his friends go off to summer camp; interestingly, despite its title, the movie goes its entire runtime without using the song “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper, which would likely have come off as a bit cliché and would’ve distracted a bit from the overall experience. A more notable, and somewhat unexpected, song choice during the credits is “Green Tambourine” by The Lemon Pipers, but covered by Robert Goulet, who also provides Mikey’s singing voice.

Recess: School’s Out manages to hold up after nearly two decades as an enjoyable movie in its own right, one which made me as a Recess fan feel like a kid again while watching. Outside of its conservative use of CG, the fluid animation is a particular highlight, alongside some very solid voice performances from both the returning cast and James Woods. This movie is an instant recommendation for fans of the original Recess TV series who have not seen it already, though thankfully it’s written such that it works as a stand-alone feature, and as such is a solid choice for people who want to celebrate the start of summer vacation.