Recess: School’s Out (2001)

Am I crazy or is this movie pretty much perfect? To be clear, when I say “perfect,” I don’t mean that it could not be improved; just that it doesn’t really do anything wrong given its parameters and ambitions. What we have is a feature-length, theatrically-released finale to a beloved kids TV series. (Technically, Recess had a couple of TV specials that followed this, but thematically it’s an excellent capper.)

I should admit up front that I’ve never seen more than an episode or two of Recess, though the movie makes me sorely tempted to. I can say with confidence that Recess: School’s Out does not require any previous knowledge of the series to be enjoyable as a standalone. There are some allusions to past events and character details, but none of it is required to understand the characters and the story here, and the nostalgic tone makes it work as a hazy, rose-tinted retrospection, anyways.

Thus, I cannot directly compare this to what the series does on an episode-by-episode basis. But School’s Out is a hugely cinematic and high-stakes story inside the framework of “schoolyard = chaotic, heightened microcosm of society” — I must imagine moreso than any episode of the series itself. It is a piece of greasy genre pastiche — a James Bond-esque techno-spy thriller crossed with a heist crossed with The Wonder Years. All of that pairs perfectly with the thematic core, which is a fond tribute to the glory years of soaring imagination and childhood freedom and golden memories before adolescent angst and adult pressures kick in.

There’s a full ensemble of both kid and adult characters in the film, and they all get moments to shine and grow. I feel like I knew them from this story alone. The story stars TJ Detweiler, a graduating fourth grader who gets stuck home alone while his crew of friends all go off to various summer camps that match their personalities: athletic Vince to baseball camp, feisty Spinelli to wrestling camp, etc.

TJ gradually discovers strange goings-on at the school and uses it as an excuse to corral his friends back home for one last epic adventure together. The scenario gradually escalates in stakes and fantasy factor. This is a large part of the appeal: some hometown blues morph into a full-on sci-fi conspiracy so seamlessly that it’s impossible not to smile.

The script is absolutely hilarious, with excellent jokes and one-liners, and plenty clever references and name-drops that will fly over the kids’ heads. Some of it is a bit juvenile, but remember — this a kids movie, not a family movie. The distinction is that this is squarely aimed at kids that parents may also enjoy; as opposed to something aimed equally at both age groups, like, e.g. the Pixar golden age or Disney fairy tales.

The story also gives a central role to the grown-ups, who provide a core lens onto the themes of the story. We have a clever reversal: Principal Prickly, the central symbol of despotic schoolyard authority gradually emerges as a stalwart defender of the dignity of childhood. He and the other teachers come across as plausible human beings while still maintaining some antagonism and edge.

The production is well-done from all angles. The animation is clean and engaging — nothing special, but perfectly adequate with well-designed characters. The voice acting is terrific; James Woods shines as the villain, especially. But the real highlight is the soundtrack, which pulls in some all-timer rock and roll needle drops — tying with the flashbacks to the adult teachers as young adults during the hippie days.

Recess: School’s Out works almost miraculously well. It’s so funny and quotable (”What the JP Morgan is going on around here?”) but also effective as a fantastical, kids-oriented piece of storytelling. So many little things work so well; lots of set up and payoff and echoed character beats. And its thematic moments are genuine and warm enough to give this one some glow. It is, hand on my heart, one of my favorite summer movies, capturing that lost feeling of the vast expanse of the end of an elementary school year, so full of possibility and freedom, better than just about any other movie I’ve seen. Yes, it may very well be perfect.

Is It Good?

Exceptionally Good (7/8)

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