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‘Recess’ too long — at least for parents

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RECESS: SCHOOL'S OUT —** 1/2 — Animated feature based on the Saturday morning cartoon; starring the voices of Andrew Lawrence, Dabney Coleman, James Woods, Pamela Segall and others; rated G (violence, mild vulgarity); Carmike 12, Ritz 15 and Villa Theaters; Century Theatres 16; Cinemark Jordan Landing Theaters; Gateway 8 Cinemas; Loews Cineplex Broadway Centre and Midvalley Cinemas; Megaplex 17 at Jordan Commons.

"Recess: School's Out," which marks the film debut of the popular Saturday morning cartoon characters, is a whole lot like the television version — only a whole lot longer.

Like other animated programs making the leap from the small screen to the big one, this cartoon comedy/adventure has problems finding a story that can justify expanding its customary, relatively brief format to feature length (in this case, just under 90 minutes).

Unfortunately, filmmakers (mostly veterans involved with the cartoon in some capacity) have come up with something that is only sporadically entertaining enough to satisfy its target audience of elementary school-age children, while their parents may wind up bored by the slow pacing and a storyline padded by musical interludes.

Also, the quality of the animation here isn't nearly creative or dynamic enough to merit the television-to-movie-theater expansion, which suggests that it probably would have been better off as a direct-to-video film.

That said, at least the film isn't as smarmy — or filled with crude potty humor — as so many of these things tend to be these days (though it's not completely free of that either).

The plot revolves around the students and teachers at 3rd Street School, which has just adjourned for summer vacation. It should be a time of joy for rabble-rousing T.J. Detweiler (voiced by Andrew Lawrence), but instead he's bummed because his friends are all going to various camps and leaving him alone at home.

Not that a lack of co-conspirators will keep him from getting into trouble. In fact, while mulling over his summer entertainment options, T.J. spies what appears to be sinister experiments going on at the school. But he's unable to convince anyone, including his chief nemesis, Principal Prickly (Dabney Coleman). T.J. does drag him over to the school, however, where he promptly disappears without a trace.

What T.J. doesn't know is that the school been taken over by evil Dr. Benedict (James Woods), the former principal, who is hatching a plan to end summer vacation once and for all. To stop this bad guy, T.J. must reunite his fellow fourth-graders before it's too late.

On the surface, there would seem to be enough material for at least an hour-long movie. But the pacing is a bit off, and the use of vintage '60s music (including "Dancin' in the Streets" and "Incense and Peppermints") is a transparent bid to appease parents.

As for the animation, not only isn't it up to the usual Disney standards, but it also looks very flat and two-dimensional, which even digital enhancements can't cover up.

That leaves things up to a good voice cast to carry the load. Of the bunch, Coleman seems to be having the most fun, while Woods, so funny as the villain in "Hercules," is wasted.

"Recess: School's Out" is rated G but contains some violence (mostly slapstick, played for laughs, though there is also some hand-to-hand combat) and mild vulgarity (involving bodily functions). Running time: 83 minutes.

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com