On this subject there can be no debate: Saturday morning cartoons usually stink. That has always been the case, and it probably always will. Oh, I look back fondly on Saturdays spent with Grape Ape, Superfriends and other poorly-animated toons, but the fact remains that these shows were nothing more than lowest-common-denominator dreck, and the situation hasn’t improved since I was a kid.
Or has it? Probably not, but at least one kiddie cartoon series has impressed me through limited access: Recess. I knew virtually nothing about the show other than that it existed before I watched a theatrical movie spin-off, Recess: School’s Out. While not exactly the second coming of Snow White - or even Rescuers Down Under, School’s Out still offered a surprisingly witty and engaging experience. It seemed like it would work for kids, but it also provided enough sop for adults to be a reasonably witty and clever experience. Since other TV-shows-made-into-movies like Pokemon: The First Movie and Rugrats In Paris offered little for grown-ups, this seemed to be a nice accomplishment.
However, I thought that might have been an aberration due to the film’s theatrical status. Sure, School’s Out played like an extended episode of the show, but it still seemed likely that it was a better-developed example, especially since it poured on some well-known actors as guest voices. I had my doubts that a version of Recess not meant for the big screen would actually be very interesting.
As I discovered through a new direct-to-video (DTV) offering called A Recess Christmas: Miracle on Third Street, I was wrong. Though cobbled together from assembled parts, the program still managed to be a fun and winning experience that often didn’t have much to do with Christmas but remained entertaining nonetheless.
At the start of Miracle, we find three faculty members of Third Street School as they depart for Winter Break. Gruff Principal Prickly (voiced by Dabney Coleman), friendly tree-hugger Miss Grotkey (Allyce Beasley), and nasty - at least on the surface - old Miss Finster (April Winchell) carpool home together and discuss some past events at the school. Eventually they get stuck in a snowdrift, where they await rescue and reminisce some more.
Those are all of the new segments created for Miracle. Frankly, this is a crude tool to allow the creation of a compilation program, and it seems cheap. Folks will believe that Miracle is an all-new adventure of the Recess clan and may be disappointed to find material they’ve seen previously.
However, if one can forgive that flaw, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Since I remain a relative Recess neophyte, all of the footage was new to me. Actually, I figured the clips were recycled mainly because of variations in animation; they simply looked different from segment to segment, and the contrast was strongest with the new expository shots. In addition, a look at the credits revealed that two different actors - role originator Ross Malinger and more recent recruit Andrew Lawrence - played main Recesser TJ, and some of the snippets showed obvious fades where commercials originally ran.
No matter - the segments were all quite entertaining and fun to see. As I noted earlier, most of them don’t relate specifically to Christmas. In the first, we see Prickly’s attempts to “break” TJ through the “Principal for a Day” program; Prickly hopes to mold TJ in his own image and get him off his back. Of course, this doesn’t quite work, but Prickly comes close, and the results are amusing.
In addition, we get a clip in which riot grrl Spinelli (Pamela Segall) suffers from the ultimate indignity: crotchety Miss Finster baby-sits for her while her parents go out of town. The slightest of the four segments, this one basically just tells us not to judge a book by its cover, and that goes for teacher and pupil, both of whom learn a little about the other’s character. This feature is the weakest, partially because it clearly rips off an episode of The Simpsons in which Bart and Skinner become friends; both shows even end with similar discussions among the two principals about how their new-found insights won’t affect their in-school relationships. Sure, other Recess programs echoed The Simpsons as well; “Principal for a Day” reminded me a lot of the one in which Bart became Mr. Burns’ heir. However, this “inspiration” felt more like theft.
Another section looks at a Thanksgiving canned food drive. Every year the posh Ashleys crush the school in this endeavor. Tired of losing, the other kids decide not to bother with it except for good-hearted and innocent Mikey (Jason Davis). The only one interested in recruiting food for the needy, he engages in the drive with no care for the prize. This exasperates the other kids, who only see it from the competitive point of view. However, TJ and crew eventually decide that they really want to stick it to the Ashleys, so they organize the entire school in a strong effort to dethrone the reigning queens.
Of course, this eventually misfires, and Mikey becomes angry because the other kids subverted the true meaning of the food drive. Happily, the kids finally get it and they redouble their efforts so the needy will chow down on some fine creamed corn and beets. This show’s another solidly entertaining effort, especially as we observe the extreme measures the kids take to win the contest.
The last feature finally addresses Christmas. This time a bigshot TV producer (Michael McKean) offers to broadcast the Third Street School’s holiday pageant but only if Mikey and his amazing singing voice (crooned by Robert Goulet) comes along for the ride. Despite some misgivings, Mikey agrees to play Santa in the show, but the inevitable snags crop up along the way. Mikey’s the last kid in his class to still believe in Santa, and he becomes badly disenchanted when he starts to learn otherwise. Eventually, his Christmas spirit returns and he saves the show, all thanks to an elderly man (James Earl Jones) who may be more than he seems.
If you just go by these synopses, Miracle probably sounds like little more than the usual sentimental “teach the kids a lesson” tripe. Indeed, each of the programs does offer a moral, but the delivery of these concepts is more subdued than one might expect. Sure, kids will likely get the point, but Recess doesn’t beat us over the head with the ideas. They go down smoothly and add some substance to the show. The longest of the four, the Christmas episode isn’t the best, but it’s still clever and witty.
If I had to pick a flaw for Miracle, it’d revolve around the character focus. TJ and Mikey get most of the material, while Spinelli is the only other kid character who receives significant screen time. Vince, Gretchen, and Gus become little more than background characters, and that’s a bit of a shame. I’d have liked to see a program in which each gets his or her own segment to better balance the material. There was more than enough room, as the show only runs 65 minutes despite studio declarations that this is a "full-length holiday movie".
Nonetheless, A Recess Christmas: Miracle on Third Street seemed like a good little compilation of clips. While it lacked much emphasis on Christmas, it still provided an entertaining and enjoyable package of material. Fans of the series should enjoy the DVD.
Footnote: despite greater sensitivities after the events of September 11, at least one line that now seems potentially objectionable remains in Miracle. At one point a character refers to kids forming their own terrorist cells. This gag seems a bit creepy now, but I’m still happy that overly cautious heads didn’t cause the alteration of the show.
A Recess Christmas: Miracle on Third Street appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although some sequences looked very good, other showed more significant issues and the overall impression was of a fairly mediocre picture.
As with many of Disney’s direct to video packages, some of the problems resulted from the cheapness of the animation. The inexpensive work showed a mix of concerns that usually don’t appear during more accomplished material. For Miracle, sharpness generally seemed acceptably crisp and distinct. However, some shots came across as a bit on the soft side, and overall definition could have been a little stronger. Moiré effects caused a moderate number of issues, while jagged edges were an even greater concern. Quite a few of those showed up throughout the show, and pan shots occasionally displayed severe jaggies. While that’s not unusual for those kinds of images, the degree to which Miracle displayed the jags seemed much higher than level. The show included few enough of those shots so that it wasn’t a frequent problem, but it could be ugly at times.
Miracle also showed a surprisingly high level of source flaws. The package nature of the program made these concerns more likely, and the degree to which the shows demonstrated defects varied from clip to clip. The new segments came across as very clean and fresh, but other elements offered light grain, some speckles and grit, and a generally dusty appearance. Considering that all the segments were fairly new - Recess isn’t exactly an old show - I thought it looked much dirtier than it should have.
Happily, colors offered a more pleasant impression. The hues consistently seemed bright and vivid throughout the show. These tones demonstrated nice depth and distinctiveness, and they didn’t display any problems such as bleeding or noise. Overall, the colors were clear and appropriately cartoony but not overblown. Black levels also seemed nicely deep and rich, but shadow detail appeared slightly heavy at times. For example, some bedroom sequences came across as a bit thick and heavy. Nonetheless, those sequences appeared reasonably concise. Overall, the picture of Miracle on Third Street looked good much of the time, but it was less than terrific as a whole.
More consistent were the soundtracks of Miracle on Third Street. Apparently Disney have really embraced DTS, for even TV-based programs like Miracle and Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse provided both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. For the latter, I thought the two sounded identical, but the same didn’t seem true for Miracle. To my surprise, the DTS track appeared slightly stronger than the Dolby version. I’ll cover the DTS edition first and will discuss the differences after that.
One area that didn’t surprise me was the soundfield, which demonstrated a predictably forward emphasis. The front speakers showed good stereo separation for the music and also gave us a reasonably strong level of ambient information. Not much distinctive information appeared from the sides, but the general atmosphere seemed fairly lively and useful. Elements panned nicely between speakers and the entire package blended together well. In addition, a little directional dialogue cropped up on a few occasions.
Surround usage appeared pretty subdued. For the most part, the mix stuck with general reinforcement of the music and effects. The impression seemed fine for the material, though, as I didn’t expect a slam-bang environment for this sort of program.
Audio quality appeared good. Dialogue always sounded natural and crisp, and I heard no problems related to intelligibility or edginess. Effects came across as accurate and clean, with good reproduction that lacked signs of distortion. The music seemed bright and rich, as it demonstrated nice dynamic range. Low-end elements appeared warm and tight, as the show offered a good level of depth.
So how did the two soundtracks differ? Not by much, but I felt that the DTS version offered somewhat stronger bass response. The Dolby edition also provided good depth, but the low-end came across as more evocative in the DTS mix. In addition, I thought the ambient effects appeared better defined and more engaging during the DTS track. Both versions seemed fine for this kind of material, but the DTS soundtrack was a moderately more compelling affair.
Miracle of Third Street skimps on extras. All we find are some Holiday Tradition Reports. These crudely animated pieces mainly focus on in-class slideshow presentations from Spinelli, Mikey and Gus. All told, they last a whopping three and a half minutes, and they added little to the package, though they seemed watchable enough.
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 Return to Neverland, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Mickey’s Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse, and The Princess Diaries. Within the “Sneak Peaks” domain itself, we see these promos plus additional clips for the upcoming special edition DVD of Peter Pan, Cinderella II: Dreams Come True, The Hunchback of Notre Dame II, Santa Who?, and
Recess: School’s Out.
Though it does little more than compile some old TV segments, A Recess Christmas: Miracle On Third Street still manages to seem entertaining and enjoyable. Recess appears to be a good little show, and this DVD offers some fine moments from it. The DVD looks very mediocre, however, and the sound isn’t tremendously better. Unfortunately, the package skimps on extras as well. Though I liked Miracle, it’s hard to recommend due to the fairly high list price of $29.99 and the bland quality of the release. Diehard fans probably will want it anyway, but others should rent it first.