Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Recess: School's Out (2001)
Studio Line: Disney - Saving The World One Playground At A Time

The Third Street Elementary School kids are teaming up to save summer vacation for kids all over the world in Disney's Recess: School's Out -- the hit theatrical movie The Washington Post calls "Great Fun!"

The school year is finally ending, and T.J. Detweiler is looking forward to summer. But boredom quickly sets in when his friends leave for camp -- until T.J. uncovers an evil plot to do away with summer vacation! A crazy former principal, Dr. Benedict, is planning to use a laser beam to alter the weather and create permanent winter.

Faced with the fire threat of year-round school, T.J. rounds up the Recess gang and bands together with some unexpected allies -- Miss Finster and Principal Prickly -- in a nonstop adventure to save everyone's summer break.

As the kids discover the heroes inside themselves, a platoon of wacky characters, far-out music and sci-fi surprises turn this madcap mission into a major victory for fun!

Director: Chuck Sheetz
Cast: Rickey D'Shon Collins, Paul Willson, Jason Davis, Ashley Johnson, Andrew Lawrence Courtland Mead, Pamela Segall, Dabney Colman
Box Office: Budget: $10 million. Opening Weekend: $13.455 million (2624 screens). Domestic Gross: $36.638 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.66:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1; subtitles English; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 21 chapters; rated G; 84 min.; $29.99; street date 8/7/01.
Supplements: Animation Camp; “My Green Tambourine” Music Video; “Dancing In the Street” Music Video; The Schoolyard Challenge Game; Digital Comic Book; Ten Secrets of Recess; Theatrical Trailer; DVD-ROM Features.
Purchase: DVD | Music soundtrack - Various Artists

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/C

When something related to current kiddie TV ends up on my DVD pile, I usually don’t look forward to it. My recent experiences with feature films based on TV shows haven’t been terribly exciting. I found the three Pokemon movies - 1999’s Pokemon the First Movie, 2000’s Pokemon the Movie 2000, and 2001’s Pokemon 3 the Movie - to be mildly interesting at best, and inoffensive at worst. I failed to experience even those highs as I checked out Rugrats In Paris, a totally abysmal flick based on the Nickelodeon program; it seemed to be grating and totally unfunny.

As such, the prospect of viewing Recess: School’s Out failed to excite me. Prior to this screening, I knew almost nothing about the show other than the fact that Disney produces it and it involves grade-school aged kids. Past that, I was totally in the dark about the series, and I was happy with my lack of awareness.

Surprisingly, I found Recess to offer a reasonably entertaining experience. The best Disney films strike a nice balance between adult and child sensibilities, which is why they’re popular with a wide range of age groups. Recess isn’t quite as successful in that regard, but it still offers some amusing and enjoyable moments for kids and grown-ups alike.

Recess follows the antics of a group of friends who attend Third Street Elementary. Leader of this pack is the mildly Bart Simpson-esque TJ Dettweiler (voiced by Andrew Lawrence), a merry prankster who likes to stick it to his teacher Miss Finster (April Winchell) and principal Mr. Prickly (Dabney Coleman). However, TJ’s not nearly as stupid or malicious as Bart, which makes him less charming and entertaining, but he’s still cut from the same cloth.

TJ’s gang includes a mix of other kids, all of whom seem to be around 10 years of age. Among the girls, we find tough, aspiring wrestler Ashley Spinelli (Pamela Segall) and science nerd Gretchen Grundler (Ashley Johnson). The other boys consist of jock Vince LaSalle (Rickey D’Shon Collins), dorky aspiring military leader Gus Griswald (Cortland Mead), and showtune crooning Mikey Blumberg (spoken voice by Jason Davis, singing voice by Robert Goulet).

As the movie’s title implies, the film starts as the kids depart school for summer vacation, “the ultimate recess”. TJ plans to have a ball with his friends during the break, but they all have other plans as they’ve arranged to attend various camps. This leaves TJ home by himself, where he mopes and pouts. However, matters take an interesting turn when he spies unusual activities at the school. He sees weird green beams of light and other bizarre incidents, but no one takes his claims seriously.

Eventually he pesters Mr. Prickly to accompany him into the school, which his nemesis grudgingly agrees to do. However, the incident concludes poorly, and TJ’s left alone to pursue the truth. To that end, he blackmails his teen sister Becky (Melissa Joan Hart) to drive to the various camps and recruit his friends. Eventually, they agree to become part of the plot to seek the facts, and the whole thing becomes very involving.

TV shows that graduate to feature film status walk a fine line. On one hand, there needs to be some reason for them to exist as big screen offerings; no one wants to pay $8 to see something that resembles nothing more than a long TV episode. On the other hand, the movies need to remain true to the original material and retain their appeal in that regard.

Although I’ve never seen Recess on TV, I have to imagine that School’s Out does play like an extended episode. The animation betrays its televised roots, as the movie looks decent but moves choppily and cheaply. The only apparent nod to the big screen environment relates to the higher caliber of voice talent found in the movie. Dr. Benedict, the main villain, is portrayed by James Woods, and we also hear from actors such as Peter MacNicol and R. Lee Ermey. No, it’s not Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts, but it’s more than one would expect from the TV show.

Despite the general lack of increased scope found in School’s Out, I thought it offered a rather entertaining experience. No, it doesn’t match up with the best work from Disney, but it doesn’t really aspire to do so. The big guns from the studio attempt to exist on a grand scale, and they usually succeed; with or without the TV show, I could never see them producing something that focuses on a bunch of grade school kids in this manner. Frankly, there’s virtually nothing to mark Recess as a Disney program. It’d fit in perfectly well anywhere.

Nonetheless, School’s Out displayed a fun spark that helped set it apart from the TV pack. There’s little about the program that seems particularly inspired, but the entire project simply remains fun and frisky and it becomes quite watchable. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t try to do so. Instead, it just wants to have a little fun, and in that realm, it succeeds.

The DVD:

Recess: School’s Out appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.66:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Though a few concerns occurred throughout the program, as a whole the movie offered a terrific picture.

Sharpness consistently appeared precise and crisp. At no point did I witness any signs of softness or fuzziness, as the movie always looked distinct and detailed. No moiré effects or jagged edges caused concerns, but I did notice light edge enhancement throughout the film. Print flaws were non-existent; I saw no examples of speckles, grit, grain or other concerns.

Colors offered a highlight, as the movie’s nicely varied palette came through well. Hues always looked bold and bright, and they were a treat to watch. For the best examples, check out segments like the wrestling campfire scene or the performance of “My Green Tambourine” over the end credits. Black levels were equally deep and rich, and shadow detail looked concise and easily visible. Without the modest edge enhancement, Recess would have provided a truly stellar transfer.

Also satisfying was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Recess. Although the soundfield demonstrated a forward emphasis, it still provided a solid experience. The audio spread cleanly across the front speakers, as music displayed good stereo separation, and effects seemed to be accurately localized. Those elements blended together well as they created a neatly realized environment. The surrounds mainly offered reinforcement of the music as well as general ambience, though a few of the action-oriented sequences brought the rears nicely to life.

Audio quality appeared to be very good. Speech was natural and warm, and I heard no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music showed robust and accurate tones, as the score and songs sounded bright and vivid, and they also betrayed solid depth. Effects were accurate and distinct, and they displayed good bass response as well; the low-end aspects of the movie seemed to be rich. Ultimately, this was a fine soundtrack the ably complemented the material.

Recess packs in a few supplements, most of which seem oriented toward the film’s natural audience of adolescents and other kids. Animation Camp offers a quick look at how the material is created. Hosted by actress Ashley Johnson and some kid with an unintelligible name from the Disney Channel’s Movie Surfers, this 10-minute piece quickly runs through a variety of elements that comprise the making of an animated work. It’s fast-paced and superficial, but it’s a decent little piece that should be satisfying for neophytes. It was also fun to see the voice talent at work, which happened briefly in the show.

The Schoolyard Challenge game may offer a little fun, though the first two parts of the contest were annoying. As was the case with “Aladar’s Adventure” on Dinosaur, those segments forced the player to rely on nothing more than simple trial and error, and they’re a total drag. The later components dealt more with knowledge of the film, which made them more satisfying. While some Disney DVDs - such as The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad - reward the completion of their games with cartoon not available by other means, that didn’t occur here. Instead, your “prize” for all that work is just a snippet of the movie’s rendition of “John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmitt”. Boo!

Many Disney DVDs offer read-along stories, and Recess follows suit, though in an unusual manner. Instead of the standard storybook format, here we find a comic book. Viewers can either read it themselves or follow along as a narrator tells the tale. The latter version lasts for two minutes and 55 seconds, and it’s a moderately fun option.

10 Secrets of Recess provides some modestly interesting bits of trivia. Hosted by Ashley Johnson and No-name again, we also hear from series creators Paul Germain and Joe Ansolabehere as they quickly run through a mix of factoids. It’s another superficial piece, but it’s fast and generally entertaining.

In addition to the film’s theatrical trailer, the DVD includes two music videos. The first of these simply provides the movie’s end credits without the text. We find Robert Goulet’s rendition of “My Green Tambourine” accompanied by the same animation found during the film’s conclusion. This makes the piece somewhat redundant, but I guess it’s easier to watch this way. In any case, it’s still a fun little snippet.

The other clip showcases Myra’s version of “Dancing In the Street”. This video mixes the usual lip-synching with snippets from the film. It’s a weak version of the song, and the video adds nothing very interesting to the case, though at least Myra’s pretty cute.

Within the Sneak Peeks area, you’ll discover a slew of advertisements for other Disney offerings. Some of these appear at the start of the DVD as well; when the disc begins to play, we find trailers for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Monsters Inc., A Recess Christmas: Miracle On Third Street, and Cinderella II: Dreams Come True. Within the “Sneak Peaks” domain itself, we see these promos plus additional clips for Dumbo, Return to Neverland, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Disney’s One Saturday Morning, and the Disney Channel’s original movies.

Lastly, the package touts some DVD-ROM content. This appears via two Internet links, neither of which really goes anywhere. Attempts to reach the “Recess Website” ended in a dead link, while the “Exclusive Online Content” just went to a general Disney page. Often I run into this problem when I review DVDs; I get the titles early and the sites aren’t online yet. However, I checked out Recess a couple of days after it hit retail shelves, so the lack of working content confused me.

Despite that concern, I still found Recess: School’s Out to offer a fairly winning package. The movie wasn’t a classic, but it was more inventive and entertaining than I expected, and it should be enjoyable for kids and adults alike. The DVD provided very solid picture and sound plus a minor complement of superficial but generally fun extras. Fans of the Recess series should really like this DVD, and parents who want something decent to watch with their kids should also give it a look.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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