Disney's "Recess: School's Out," which has grossed about $30 million in three weeks, demonstrates the box-office potential of low-budget animated features based on popular children's television shows. It also reveals a problem that has dogged many of these films: the villain or threat confronting these kids is simply too big for the child heroes to tackle plausibly.
In the last few years, kids have been offered theatrical versions of some of their favorite TV programs, and most of them have performed well at the box office: "The Rugrats Movie" ($100.5 million), "Pokemon: The Movie" ($85.7 million), "Rugrats in Paris" ($75.2 million), "The Tigger Movie" ($45.5 million), "Pokemon 2000" ($43.7 million), "Doug's 1st Movie" ($19.4 million), "The Digimon Movie" ($9.6 million).
The two "Rugrats" films--which cost only $25 million and $27 million, respectively--have brought in an additional $86 million in video revenue.
But the problem remains that most of these films pitted the main characters--who are generally supposed to be ordinary kids--against needlessly out-sized bad guys. In "Recess," a gang of fourth-graders battles a mad scientist and his security guards; a major avalanche threatens to sweep away Pooh and his friends in "The Tigger Movie." Doug Funnie and his pal, Skeeter Valentine, outwitted the minions of a nasty local big shot in "Doug's 1st Movie." In "The Digimon Movie," a clutch of kids stops a virus from destroying the Web; both "Pokemon" movies involve world-threatening menaces.
By pumping up the threats, the filmmakers' concepts violate the worlds of the original programs: Christopher Robin's Hundred Acre Wood is a peaceful stretch of English countryside, not the site of Alpine cataclysms. Paul Germain and Jonathan Greenberg worked on "Rugrats" before they created "Disney's Recess" and, like "Rugrats," "Recess" presents a kid's-eye view of a kid's world, but the characters are elementary school age, rather than infants. Their problems are more likely to involve bullies, detention, substitute teachers and misunderstandings between friends than global threats.
In "Recess," writers Joe Ansolabehere, Germain and Greenberg came up with half of a good premise: kids fighting to preserve recess and summer vacation.
TJ Detweiler, who sometimes sounds like a Bart Simpson manque, is the ringleader of a group of fourth-graders who bedevil their teachers and the principal. He's a normal if somewhat rowdy suburban kid; similarly, Gretchen is the girl who gets 100% on every test, Vince is the athlete, Don is the nerdy new kid.
But TJ's gang is pitted against disgruntled former principal Philliam Benedict, who'll do anything to raise test scores. No summer vacation would mean more time to study, so Benedict plans to eliminate summer vacation by eliminating summer, using a sci-fi ray gun to alter the moon's orbit. (Benedict and the writers apparently skipped astronomy class: The moon doesn't create the seasons.) After stealing equipment from a top-secret research facility, Benedict and his henchmen set up headquarters in the Third Street School cafeteria.
TJ leads the students in a last-minute sortie to stop Benedict. In the ensuing battle, elementary school children use water balloons, sticky string and the spray from shaken cans of soda to defeat uniformed security guards and ninja warriors. TJ and his friends have always been ordinary kids in an ordinary suburb; they don't outfight trained adults. The film's climatic raid seems as incongruous as Scooby and Shaggy taking on Darth Vader.
Similar problems weakened both "Pokemon" features. In the TV series, Ash Ketcham aspires to become the world's greatest Pokemon trainer; he and his friends Misty and Brock catch wild Pokemon and challenge other trainers in adventures that emphasize friendship, perseverance and good sportsmanship. The regular villains are the comic Team Rocket (Jessie, James and Meowth), whose schemes inevitably backfire.
In the first movie, Ash and his friends were pitted against Mewtwo, a giant mutant Pokemon that sought to destroy all humans. The weather disturbances unleashed in "Pokemon 2000" caused worldwide disasters. The threats were just too big for these characters to handle: Ash may be a good kid, but you wouldn't want him standing between you and a global cataclysm. The big shot in "Doug's 1st Movie" only polluted the local lake, but two adolescents outwitting scores of men with laser guns, pistols, etc., simply doesn't fit into the show's small-town Midwestern setting.
The "Rugrats" features have avoided the over-the-top villain syndrome and remained truer to the spirit of the series, which has helped to ensure their continued success. In the first film, the arrival of Tommy Pickles' baby brother, Dylan, leads the kids to take off in a prototype mechanical stroller and get lost in the nearby woods. Some of the gags are a bit over the top, but there are no global crises. In "Rugrats in Paris," the villain is nasty Coco LaBouche, who wants to marry Chuckie's father just to advance her career. Chuckie and his friends score the kind of slapstick victory that's been a cartoon standard since Pongo and Perdita trounced Cruella De Vil in "101 Dalmatians" (1961). The kids don't storm the Bastille or crush a would-be dictator.
As modestly budgeted features based on TV shows offer studios a potential windfall, kids and parents can expect to see more of them in the multiplexes in the near future. A third "Pokemon" movie is due later this year; "The Rugrats Meet the Wild Thornberries" is slated for 2002, with a "Wild Thornberries" feature to follow.
But one suggestion to the filmmakers: Don't send the Archies after Hannibal Lechter.