Painting a picture of childhood is not an easy or straightforward job, especially through the eyes of an adult. To begin with, it’s an experience that is never the same for everyone. Then there’s also the fact that the painter’s present state of mind and societal definitions of an ideal childhood might define how they portray it.
Disney’s Recess is able to recreate the best and worst of childhood, albeit in its own innocent and playful tone. It is about the adventures (and misadventures) of a misfit group of nine-year-olds during school recess, and much more. The word ‘misfit group’ is to indicate how the group as a whole doesn’t fit well with any other element of the crowd, yet they are not necessarily ‘misfits’ in themselves.
Mikey is the naive guy with a heart of gold, Spinelli is the tomboy who looks after the weak ones, Vince is the sports star, Gretchen the super student, Gus, the new kid with hidden talents, and then there’s T.J. Detweiler, the leader of the pack.
Each adventure is completed in roughly ten minutes, but encompasses a wonderful story of its own. Other than these main characters, and their interactions with several major and minor characters, such as King Bob, a sixth grader, who is styled as the King of the playground, or Randall, the school snitch; the playground in itself is a major character.
To a child’s imagination, things look different. Same is the case here, the playground is an unending expanse which is populated with different factions and subcultures such as the primitive kindergarteners, the posh Ashleys, and even a mystical Guru! Its artifacts like the ‘Old Rusty’, the jungle gym, have a special place in the heart of the students. It becomes the site of many a dodge-ball battle (where fourth graders are often defeated, till a certain ‘El Diablo’ arrives to save them), of exaggerated stories like alien abductions, and even judicial trials with a Rashomon-style narrative.
Recess becomes a successful affair because it is able to delve into forgotten ‘emotions’ of childhood and link them up with pop culture narratives of the era. So, the smallest of joys and troubles of childhood, which become silly as one grows up to forget them, are the centre of several plot-lines. This could be loss of a particular image, like Spinelli’s tough kid act in jeopardy because she called Miss Grotke ‘Mama’, the do’s and don’ts that children seems to create whether in schools or playgrounds, which get Gus into trouble in the episode ‘Jinxed’ and the secret language of kids as portrayed in ‘The Story of Whomps’.
The show gets better as it portrays the problems of adulthood, in its own way. So, the loss of self-belief, is shown after Vince loses confidence in his playing ability in the episode ‘I Will Kick No More Forever’. The tough choice between your career and what you love to do is shown when Gretchen is given the chance to go to the Oppenheimer Institute, and finally, the nostalgia of one’s own past, of simpler times of life (such as what one may think about when they look back at their childhood), is shown when TJ joins the kindergarteners in ‘The Legend of the Big Kid’.
Recess is a product of its era, and being made by Disney in the 90s, sadly falls victim to the ‘65th episode’ rule of the company. Given its quality (especially, in terms of animation) and content, Recess definitely deserved a longer run.
Personally, I don’t think I can pick one favourite character, for it would be similar to TJ being forced to pick a favourite friend in ‘The Break-up’. Recess is a remarkable show, where each character develops a unique place in the viewers’ hearts. You can watch it on Disney+ Hotstar.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.