Ceaselessly into the Past
Chloe Lizotte Revisits Recess: School's Out
It could have been thrown away, or otherwise forgotten—but I found it while cleaning junk out of my parents’ basement. Deep in a plastic tub full of my elementary school homework, I came across a stapled daily journal from the first grade. Our teacher had asked us to write a few sentences reflecting on our day and complete it with an illustration. I’m not sure what the purpose of this assignment was; maybe to encourage us to sharpen our powers of narrative storytelling and improve our rudimentary spelling.
I squinted to decipher my angular, unsteady capital letters. One entry settled into focus:
I like the movie Recess: School’s Out. It is a great movie. You won't beleive [sic] this: Ms. Finster does boxing! My favorite line is: what about theese [sic] bodatious [sic] hips of mine? Randall, run back to my place and get the butter! That movie is so funny! That movie is one of my favorites! It is so good!
At the time I uncovered this artifact, I had no memory of watching Recess: School’s Out (2001). The depth of my younger self’s passion for this animated feature—directed by Chuck Sheetz and based on the Disney Channel series Recess (1997-2001)—was unsettling. This had less to do with the actual film and everything to do with how I had brought it to life. I had illustrated the scene in question, but that didn’t clarify what was going on. As rendered by shaky seven-year-old hands, Ms. Finster’s body was rectangular, supine; some vertical line seemed to be bisecting her, as though sprawled on a magician’s table. “Get the butter” just seemed sinister—unfortunately, this is a line I now only associate with Last Tango in Paris (1972). The final three exclamations I can hear clearly in my head as though bellowed by David Lynch.
The conspiratorial tone of “You won’t beleive this” makes all of it feel like a good secret. I must have meant it in a “dear diary” sense, so it was strange to feel like I was being addressed very deliberately by a past self. The innocent child at point A—expressing earnest enthusiasm—reached out to the burnt-out gig economy writer at point B. She had no idea that she would spin something resembling a “career” from this very practice: scribbling her favorite, weird lines of dialogue in a class journal.
I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to reach backwards in time—I needed to understand what lay in this gap between us. That meant returning to the source: Recess.
The TV series Recess was created by Paul Germain and Joe Ansolabehere, who have “story by” and producer credits on School’s Out. Both are graduates of UCLA’s film school; prior to Recess, Germain had made a name for himself as a co-creator of Rugrats (1991–2004). As David Perlmutter writes in America Toons In: A History of Television Animation (2014), Recess transposed Rugrats’ “kid’s-eye-view approach … to an older demographic group”:
As the title implied, the series focused on the twice-daily ritual of outdoor activity that occurs in nearly every elementary school in North America on a daily basis. Here, the outdoor activities of the kids of Third Street Elementary were allowed to be presented, in documentary realist fashion, as an effective metaphor for the follies of the outside world. [...] There was a great deal of humor there besides, particularly in the comparison of the noble deeds, behaviors and acts of the featured children to the heavily stereotyped, antagonistic and morally flawed nature of the adults looking after them.
The series doesn’t simply mine tension from the kids-vs.-adults conflict; during recess, the kids have to structure their own social order. The older children claim authority—there’s a bratty jock of a sixth grader named King Bob with a unibrow and a football jersey—and the kindergarteners occupy an anarchistic state, with tribal overtones that might coax an Atlantic think piece on a particularly slow week. The protagonist, T.J., is a creative, antiauthoritarian prankster; Perlmutter compares him to Colonel Hogan, another charismatic bandleader. Injecting a prison-break feel into his hijinks, the showrunners crafted loving homages to the likes of The Great Escape and Cool Hand Luke.
Other than the original Space Jam (sublime) and The Boss Baby (haunting), I probably hadn’t watched a movie squarely aimed at children in about 15 years. I’d been expecting the Shrek model of jokes aimed at sleepy parents—that is, non-sequitur references to Starbucks and the E! Channel. But as I sat down to revisit Recess: School’s Out at age 29, I was surprised to find that it resonated in deeper, thematic ways. The movie is, in its own manner, wrestling with the legacy of the ’60s, which is still a source of cultural confusion: idealism and change; violence and rupture; all fizzling erratically into the next decade.
I was surprised to find that the main characters weren’t delinquents, but well-meaning nerds. It’s the last day of fourth grade, and T.J. deflates when he realizes that his friends will be parting for the summer. He’s the only one who isn’t enrolled in a specialized camp; among them, baseball camp for athlete Vince, space camp for pre-MIT Gretchen, and wrestling camp for tomboy Spinelli. “Sorry, man, we got to think about our futures,” they tell him, basically explaining that these camps are résumé-builders. “As of the completion of fourth grade, we are technically considered to be pre-young adults.”
T.J., meanwhile, is determined to enjoy his summer and stave off the inevitable. This is pretty boring without his friends around, but he’s also in the right place to uncover a conspiracy. As he bikes by Third Street Elementary, vacant for the summer, he spies an enormous tractor beam erupting out of its ceiling—then disappearing in the blink of an eye. The school has been taken over by a scientist, Dr. Phillum Benedict (voiced by James Woods), who is trying to use this technology to bring on a new Ice Age. His goal is to wipe out summer vacation for good; brandishing test scores as proof, he ventures that kids in colder climes excel in school since there are fewer distractions outside.
If you’re wondering why Dr. Benedict is obsessed with academic excellence, there’s some backstory here, which links the adults in the room, the establishment, to the kids. T.J.’s unexpected companion is his academic-year enemy, Principal Prickly (Dabney Coleman), who tells us that Dr. Benedict was a fellow teacher—and his best friend—at Third Street back in the ’60s. Cue a flashback sequence with tie-dye and flower-power motifs: a young Prickly resembles Sgt. Pepper–era Paul McCartney, and Benedict has an Easy Rider–esque fringe jacket and motorcycle. At the time, Benedict has been appointed the youngest school principal in the state, and he floats his no-recess policy to Prickly: “All that peace and love and freedom stuff was good for pickin’ up chicks,” says Benedict, “but it’s not going to help my career.” Prickly—who in his youthful idealism, is actually in favor of holding all classes outside—pushed back and took control of the school. After this, Benedict went into politics and ascended to Secretary of Education before the president fired him for trying to get rid of recess nationwide. With nowhere to go, Benedict has returned for revenge.
It’s a cliché for fresh-faced revolutionaries to be sanded down into frumpy, exhausted school principals, but the question of what this decade actually meant looms large—whether it symbolized meaningful change or a lost opportunity, or if all of that was just a simplistic mirage. But that’s the problem with turning a historical moment into a palette of symbols. Every period has gains and losses, breakthroughs and shortcomings, demoralizing and unglamorous battles for change.
Maybe I’m losing something by knowing too much about what School’s Out is trying to talk about. To a grade-schooler, Dr. Benedict’s threat to free time probably seemed like no match for the kids’ inventiveness. The Rube Goldberg–like contraptions strung through the story are still exciting, regardless of the late-’90s 2D animation: the ominous tractor-beam; a humongous catapult that the kids design in the opening sequence. There might have been one too many “groovy!”s in the hackneyed paisleys of the flashback scene, but I didn’t feel that the film was ever talking down to the audience. The filmmakers clearly sided with the kids’ precociousness: the earnest, scrappy drive to create something from scratch, without overthinking why you were doing it.
Am I reading too much into this? I wondered as the film ended—with a psychedelic, Yellow Submarine–esque vignette in which the group’s prodigy singer Mikey performs “Green Tambourine,” all while ventriloquizing Robert Goulet (emphasis mine) in his final screen role. Was I so determined to glean something meaningful that I forced a try-hard textual analysis from the film’s cold, dead hands?
I was curious what critics had written about School’s Out when it was released. Many compared it unfavorably to Rugrats, and others took it to task for being nothing more than a television episode stretched out to feature-length. Todd McCarthy melodramatically called it “a degradation of the Disney name” in the Hollywood Reporter. Wesley Morris, whose capsule is compiled in this SF Gate roundup, wrote like he was reading my mind (this was a year before he joined the Boston Globe, where I’d pore over his reviews as I grew more seriously interested in film criticism):
The film is thin on laughs, but it's redolent of something funnier and altogether more unusual in the kid-flick climate: unmitigated sincerity. Visually, the film is a chortle factory. The whole thing, with its crisp, geometrically askew cast, looks like “School House Rocks” or Robert Smigel's “TV Funhouse.” And for anyone who demands that his animated escapades close with “far out,” generation-bridging kitsch, there’s Robert Goulet, golden-throating his way through a version of “Green Tambourine.”
Then there was Roger Ebert, who also seemed to understand where I was coming from . . . when I wrote my original review. It makes sense to me that Russ Meyer’s former co-screenwriter was captivated by a discomfiting scene featuring “draconian teacher” Ms. Finster. “It's doubtful she was a child of the 1960s,” writes Ebert (forgetting that we do see her in the flashback, I hastily correct), “although she retains some of the lingo (when she gets stuck trying to crawl through a basement window of the school, she cries out, ‘I’m stuck! Curse these bodacious hips of mine!’).”
Ms. Finster is a lumpy old lady with a guttural snarl (voiced by April Winchell) and is by far the weirdest character of the bunch. Her summer hobby seems to be self-defense training; in the evening hours, we find her in a dismal apartment, boxing a punching bag in her living room. When goody-two-shoes hall monitor Randall rings her door to tattle on T.J., she exclaims to no one, “Ten more minutes and the pizza would have been free!” Later—moments before the window incident, while investigating Third Street and the tractor beam under cover of darkness—she wonders if she can get T.J. and his friends “tried as adults.” My sense of humor has led me to some embarrassing places, but I’ll admit I laughed aloud twice while watching School’s Out as an adult, and it was at both of these lines.
With solemnity, I watched Ms. Finster get stuck in the basement window. As she yelled the hotly anticipated “bodacious hips” line to Randall, I realized I was glad to have reconnected with her. I was right: she was funny. I thought back to the way I initially cringed at my youthful scrawl, and the way I foolishly scrambled to the Tomatometer for a sanity check. Ms. Finster isn’t highbrow, but she’s as good a starting point for a review as anything. If she stumbled into the Trenton pharmacy in Owen Kline’s Funny Pages (2022), she would fit right in with that film’s cast of volatile misfits. She’s unfiltered and slovenly; she’s a lone warrior, but doesn’t exactly seem lonely; she’s shameless, a little evil. I try to keep up appearances, organize the chaos by putting pen to paper—but, really, I want to let it all go just like her.
When writing criticism, we’re asked to translate a messy inner response—excitement, revulsion, and everything in between—into something legible to both us and the outside world. You want to be taken seriously, bring some intellect and insight to the proceedings; you also want to be considerate of the artists and their process, but you don’t want to let them off the hook. Even if you’re the protagonist of your thoughts, what’s the responsible and productive way to intervene with the discourse on this particular object? Are you successfully balancing your subjectivity with research and relevant context? In the end, what kind of culture are you advocating for?
You whip it all together, throw it at the wall, and watch it stick. It’s not etched in stone, but hopefully it’s thoughtful, and the start of a conversation. It all goes back to the innocent generosity of “You won’t beleive [sic] this”: I wasn’t trying to write the enduring piece of criticism about Recess, but it meant enough to me to open up a dialogue with the reader. And today, I can no longer keep my younger self’s journal entry a secret—I’d be holding her back from the audience she was trying to reach. Whether an elementary-school journal or the blank page of a Word doc, recess is still recess: an oasis of free space where you can collaborate and build, pre-young-adult programs be damned.