Though it’s a bit peculiar for Disney to be opening a movie dealing with summer vacation in the depths of winter–perhaps it’s intended to appeal to kids’ dreams about the future as the school year drones on–that’s about the only thing wrong with “Recess: School’s Out,” a feature version of the “Disney’s Recess” series that’s been a fixture on ABC Saturday mornings and UPN daytime since 1997. Genial and good-natured, it’s almost entirely free of the jokes about slime and flatulence that are so prevalent in the pandering kidflicks of today, and it even manages to get across a message involving not only cooperation among youngsters but also understanding between kids and adult authority figures. The movie’s comparatively gentle, almost retro feel might not appeal to kids addicted to the massive explosions and blood-drenched violence of many video games, but it’s a welcome respite from much of what passes for children’s entertainment nowadays, and adults who tag along with the youngsters should have a reasonably good time at it, too.
The plot centers on a group of recently-graduated fourth graders whose leader, the smart-alecky but ultimately likable T.J. (voiced by Andy Lawrence) discovers that their supposedly empty elementary school has been secretly taken over by a bunch of conspirators led by the evil ex-principal (and ex-Secretary of Education) Philliam Benedict (voiced by James Woods), whose earlier plot to do away with recess has been crushed and is now out to destroy summer vacation by changing the moon’s orbit to put the earth into permanent frost. Foiling the scheme requires the kids to give up their individual plans to go off to a variety of summer camps and not only to seek the help of other youths but also to make peace with T.J.’s antagonistic older sister Becky (voiced by Melissa Joan Hart) and work together with the school personnel they ordinarily torment–officious Principal Prickly (Dabney Coleman) and obnoxious playground enforcer Miss Finster (April Winchell) as well as the other teachers. There follows a good deal of chop-socky action and plenty of jokes aimed at juveniles to suit the expectations of the target audience, but by the close the members of the gang have not only strengthened their own friendships and learned to use their individual abilities in a cooperative effort, but discovered that the school officials they’ve dismissed as clueless aren’t quite so uncomprehending as they’d thought. And by making the root cause of Benedict’s scheming his desire to raise students’ test scores in order to enhance his own electoral hopes, the script even makes a sharp and topical comment about how politicians crassly manipulate educational issues to their own advantage.
If one wants to pick nits, he would note that the whole basis of Benedict’s plot–the notion of altering the orbit of the moon and effectively creating a new ice age for so meager a benefit as he’s trying to achieve–is absurd, and that the guy behind it is a rather pallid villain by Disney standards. He might also point out that the animation technique is awfully conventional and unimaginative; the work was done by the Walt Disney Television Animation unit, and the result is about of the quality you’d expect on the tube. But the complaints fade in the face of the picture’s quiet charm and old-fashioned lack of mean-spiritedness. “Recess: School’s Out” may not be a classic, but compared to most of the dumbed-down dreck that’s been foisted upon young audiences in recent years, it’s pleasant diversion.
By the way, the fact that the school snitch Randall looks exactly like a moppet version of Moe Syzlak may appeal especially to “Simpsons” aficionados.