Throughout the years, there have been many animated TV shows that had made the leap from the small screen to the theater. Some of them have worked very well on the big screen and became worthwhile companion pieces to their show while others didn't translate exceptionally well to the big screen. One of the cartoons that did manage to get a big screen upgrade was Disney Television Animation's "Recess" in 2001 with "Recess: School's Out" and it's a film that I think falls into being just simply okay. I might not be the best person to write this review since I haven't seen much of the original cartoon, but I have enjoyed what I've seen of it as it focuses on a group of kids in school and their goofy antics throughout the day. This film does retain the goofiness of the show though it does come off as feeling like a film that probably would've worked better on TV than in theaters. I certainly don't dislike the film, but it's not a film that I really liked either.
On the last day of school, the kids at Third Street Elementary are excited to be starting summer vacation, notably the gang of fourth graders which includes the rogue leader T.J. (Andrew Lawrence), the jock Vince (Rickey D'Shon Collins), the tomboy Spinelli (Pamela Adlon), the wise goof Mikey (Jason Davis), the nerd Gretchen (Ashley Johnson), and the new kid Gus (Courtland Mead). While T.J. has some exciting plans to hang out with his friends over the summer, he soon discovers that his friends are all going to camp and that he'll be alone most of the summer. He's naturally dismayed when his friends leave but then discovers some suspicious activities happening within the school. When he tries to tell the adults about it, no one believes him and when he tries to get Principal Prickley to investigate (Dabney Coleman), Prickley ends up disappearing. Desperate, T.J. decides to get his friends out of the camp to figure out what's going on at the school which involves a crazed ex-principal named Phil Benedict (James Woods) who has been concocting an evil plan within the school.
Like I said earlier in the review, I don't have much knowledge about "Recess" so I don't know if I'm the right person to review this film, but I'm gonna try my best based on what I know of it. From what I have seen of it, "Recess" should be a show that works well on the big screen as it has a cast of memorable characters and endless goofy scenarios that could lead to a worthwhile film. And yet, this film really didn't do much for me in the end. It's certainly not a bad animated film by any means, but it's definitely not one of the better-animated films that have been based on a show that I've seen. The story of the film is pretty goofy. It starts off on a very silly note as we see the villains take over this lab and start their plans to take over the elementary school and I do think some of the silliness does work well. One notable silly moment that did get a laugh out of me was a ridiculous flashback to the 60s where it shows the adults dressed up as hippies, wearing tye-dye, and the school having been painted with psychedelic imagery. It was ridiculous, but I found it funny and I will say the film does have some other funny moments as well. It does have some sweet moments as well including one where the kids are in T.J.'s treehouse spying on the school and start reminiscing about some of their memories together as they realize that they might not get to hang around together as much as before that ties into a nice message about enjoying your time while you're young that I really liked. However, what holds this story back from working for me was the pacing. This film really feels quite sloppily rushed and should've been fleshed out a lot more. It's evident right from the start of the film as quite literally the day after T.J.'s friends leave for camp, he already notices something suspicious with the school (we don't even see the villains enter the school, they're just in already).
I wish the filmmakers really took the time to add more to these moments to make it feel a bit more cinematic since the film mainly came across more as a film made for television rather than theaters. Speaking of that, I should talk about the animation and it's easily the weakest element of the film. This film cost $23 million and compared to other animated films based on shows like "The Rugrats Movie" which had around the same budget three years before this, it really does not look like a film that was made for the big screen. Apart from the end credits sequence which was quite funny and colorful, most of the film looked like it belonged more on TV than it did for a theater as the character animation feels rather limited and stilted while the backgrounds of the film felt basic. It just didn't have much of a cinematic upgrade than Disney Television Animation's other films like "Teacher's Pet". I guess that leads me to the characters and I will admit they were my favorite part of the film. As far as the characters who come back from the TV show, I did find them fun and I did like how it fleshed out some of their relationships. I particularly liked how the film helmed the relationship between T.J. and Principal Prickley as despite their tumultuous relationship with T.J. constantly getting in trouble and ending up in his office, he does care about him as a kid and for the fun he has. With that said though, I do think that these characters might be better if you watched the show and know who they are since I was a bit confused by some of the other characters who populate the film. I also did find the villain of Phil Benedict funny, mainly due to James Wood's performance which helped me buy his quite ludicrous plan. He was clearly giving it his all.
All in all though, "Recess: School's Out" is an average animated film based on a show. While it does have some funny characters and a nice message, it does suffer due to its rushed pacing and not great animation which make it feel more like a film made for TV rather than theaters. It's an overall okay film and I think you'll probably like it if you're a "Recess" fan though, in my opinion, I do think there are better animated films based on shows out there than this.