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Recess: School's Out

Director: Chuck Sheetz
Cast: voices of Andy Lawrence, Ashley Johnson, Pam Segall, Rickey D'Shon Collins, Jason Davis, Dabney Coleman, James Woods

(Disney; 2001)

Leave Those Kids Alone

If you’ve been keeping up with the cartoon world, you may have noticed that things are exactly the same as they have always been, only completely different. By that I mean that all of the necessary components that have made cartoons such a U.S. media mainstay are still around: heroes, villains, robots, monsters, lots of slapstick comedy and violence, and a complete disregard for the laws of physics. Animated characters will always, by necessity, it seems, drop anvils on one another and foil the plans of mad scientists by using various superpowers. And yet, if you’ve seen some of today’s more popular cartoons (such as PowerPuff Girls, Johnny Bravo, and Dexter’s Laboratory, to name a few), you’ve probably caught the distinctly postmodern approach most of them take. Sure, there’s plenty of old-fashioned cartoon hijinks, but the jokes are delivered with healthy doses of irony, lots of pop culture references, and a generous wink to let you know, “Hey, this is a cartoon, and this is how we do things in the ‘00s.”


Enter Recess: School’s Out, the new Disney animated film based on the popular Saturday morning cartoon. Like the show, the movie follows the exploits of a group of elementary schoolers as they torment their overbearing teachers, such as the shrewish Miss Finster (April Winchell) and the well-meaning but clueless Principal Prickly (Dabney Coleman). As the film opens, the kids are celebrating the upcoming summer break by pulling one more school prank, namely, the theft of ice cream bars that are being kept from the kids by Miss Finster.


The scheme is masterminded by TJ (Andy Lawrence)—think: Ferris Bueller as a little kid—the leader of an eclectic group of friends that includes Mikey (Jason Davis), an obese kid who sings opera (singing voice by Robert Goulet); Spinelli (Pam Segall), a tough girl who loves professional wrestling; sports freak Vince (Rickey D’Shon Collins); brainy Gretchen (Ashley Johnson); and Gus (Courtland Mead), the new kid recently taken in by the group. During their ice cream heist, which sets up the kids as mischievous pranksters with the best interests of their classmates in mind (namely, ice cream), the kids are caught by Principal Prickly, but they claim immunity once the final bell rings and they gain their summer freedom.


The story unfolds with TJ feeling lonely as the rest of his friends go off to various summer camps. With nothing to do, he ends up wandering aimlessly around town, and stumbles upon a dastardly operation at his school involving a crazed former principal, Dr. Benedict (James Woods), and his plan to change the orbit of the moon. Naturally, TJ rallies his friends together and they conspire to fight the wicked Dr. Benedict. It turns out that Dr. Benedict is so strict that he wants to change the orbit of the moon in order to put the nation in a constant freeze, thus putting an end to summer and creating a year-round school year.


Like much other current animation, keenly aware of its own pop cultural context. There’s a brief, subtle Indiana Jones tribute (“Ninjas. Why did it have to be ninjas?” Mikey complains, when the gang confronts a group of black-clad warriors); a borrowed Pink Floyd lyric (“Hey, teacher: leave those kids alone!”); and a nod to Lord of the Flies, when the kindergartners don war paint and behave like savages, taking over their classroom and harassing their superiors (one of the toddlers demands of his teacher, “You eat paste!”).


Perhaps Recess’ most culturally savvy element is its skewering of the ‘60s, in a flashback showing how the ideals of the teachers (particularly Principal Prickly and Dr. Benedict) have fallen by the wayside as they were sucked into The System and traded their ideals for hard-nosed discipline. During this sequence, the film skewers everything from meditation, to period dress, to Easy Rider (Dr. Benedict rides a chopper, the spitting image of a young Peter Fonda). As the credits roll, the Recess gang plays a song (“Listen to my green tambourine”), in which they strum instruments in front of a psychedelic backdrop.


The kids at the screening laughed at all this silliness, even though they didn’t realize that the filmmakers were making fun of a period of U.S. history that many of their parents experienced. For sure, the pop-cultural riffing is intended to entertain their parents, but I think it has another motivation as well. The animators and writers of today are the cartoon-watching kids of yesterday: they absorbed hours and hours of television as children, and, being Generation Xers, have a tendency to regurgitate what they took in as kids, in a smart-alecky way, gleefully exploiting the past for all its inherent goofiness.


But all this is only the opinion of a 26-year-old. For one from a much more qualified reviewer, I’ll turn things over to my 11-year-old sister, Rachel, who will provide her take on the film:


I think people will like the characters in Recess: School’s Out, because they are funny. All the Recess characters have their own personalities. For example, Spinelli likes wrestling and Mikey likes opera. The Recess TV show is awesome, and one of my favorite TV shows. I think both kids and adults will like the Recess movie.

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