- A change of pace for Disney: The Mouse House was never like this.
Based on the TV series designed by illustrator Gary Baseman, Teacher's Pet looks like an attempt by Disney to grab that market share of kids who dislike traditional drawings, opting instead for the grotesque caricature style embodied by the likes of Clasky-Csupo (creators of Rugrats, Duckman, and Real Monsters, among others). It's certainly a change of pace to see the Disney magic-castle logo drawn in Baseman's unique style, just as it's incongruous and amusing to see the opening sequence of Pinocchio reproduced in that same style to open the movie, complete with the original recording of "When You Wish Upon a Star." That the Blue Fairy suddenly dissolves into a bird voiced by Jerry Stiller might be the film's best gag.
If you haven't seen the TV show, here's the basic idea: Family dog Spot (Nathan Lane) longs to be a boy, and with the aid of a hat and glasses, he manages to fool everyone around him into believing he is one. Under the clever alias of "Scott," he attends school alongside his owner, Leonard Helperman (Shaun Fleming), and is the star pupil of Leonard's teacher and mother, Mrs. Helperman (That '70s Show mom Debra Jo Rupp). Still, in case you missed the significance of the Pinocchio homage, that isn't enough for Spot, who longs to become a real boy.
He gets his chance this time around. While watching TV, he comes across a talk show --hosted by Jerry Springer lookalike Barry Anger (Jay Thomas) -- that is amazingly similar in style to Hotseat, the ultra-right-wing Southern California talk show that was hosted by the late, great Wally George. The featured guest is a mad Eastern European scientist, Dr. Krank (Kelsey Grammer), who claims that he can turn animals into people, though all his attempts thus far have resulted in hideous mutants (not that anyone drawn by Baseman is exactly pretty).
Krank lives in Florida, and by coincidence, Mrs. Helperman and Leonard are headed that way for a teaching-awards ceremony. No dogs are allowed in their RV, however, so Spot must become Scott in order to make the trip. Without giving away any more of the plot, let's just say that Spot's notion that a mad scientist might be trustworthy proves significantly false. Your kid could figure that one out, and maybe that's the point.
It may be giving a kiddie movie way too much thought here, but the logic at work in the film's ultimate theme -- that a boy and his dog need each other in a unique way -- seems a tad shaky. Essentially, the film posits that even if one's canine companion is super-intelligent, with a mind superior to that of its owner, it should nonetheless remain in a subservient role and not strive for greater humanity because "a boy needs his dog." Granted, in real life those who would emotionally bestow full humanity on pets could usually use some therapy, but in a movie where the dog speaks and sings like Nathan Lane, one wonders why he should live out his days fetching sticks for a dumb kid.
But let's give the movie its due for what it does well -- musical numbers. Pinocchio cribbing and end credits aside, there are eight major set pieces in the movie, and all are full to bursting with an energy the rest of the action lacks. Lane, Stiller, Grammer, et al. may not have the most melodious voices, but they can all go over the top like nobody's business, and the animation kicks it up another level to match. Singing characters pop out of the woodwork (literally) and everywhere else, while sight gags go by at a nearly subliminal pace -- adults unaccustomed to frame-per-second perception will either miss a great deal or go into seizures. The lyrics are clever too, so props to songwriters Cheri Steinkellner, Randy Petersen, and Kevin Quinn.
The rest of the movie isn't so clever, sadly. The subplot involving Mrs. Helperman's teacher-of-the-year contest is forgotten, and a truly creepy bit of possible romance between her and the human Scott is brought up just enough to be squirm-inducing, but not so much that it actually goes anywhere. Note to Michael Eisner: You won't be winning back the Baptist fans any time soon.