Teacher's Pet

Robin Clifford 
Teacher's Pet
Laura Clifford 

Spot Helperman (voice of Nathan Lane) is a dog with a mission. He doesn’t want to be a boy’s best friend any more, he wants to be the boy! In pursuit of his dream, the talking pooch sticks his ears under a beanie, dons a pair of glasses and puts on a pair of pants and, voila, Spot becomes Scott and he accompanies his owner, Leonard (voice of Shaun Fleming), to the 4th grade. But he still has his dream in “Disney’s Teacher’s Pet.”

My initial reaction to the invitation to see “Teacher’s Pet,” a feature animation spawned by 11-minute shorts on the Disney Channel, was to dismiss it. I watched the clips for it, anyway, and was turned around. The Pinocchio-style kids’ story about a dog that wants to be a boy has an undercurrent of subversive humor that make this a true “for kids of all ages” flick. For the youngsters there are cute, funny talking animals, bright and colorful scenery and 11, count ‘em, 11, catchy songs. These elements do well to keep the younger children amused and entertained.

But, the appeal to older kids and beyond is contained in the cleverness of the script by the TV show creators, Bill and Cheri Steinkellner; the vocal talents of Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer, Jerry Stiller, David Ogden Stiers and the rest of the cast; the catchy tunes, including a musical number that lists all of the US states alphabetically and tells you something about each. The filmmakers also have inserted references to seven Disney animation classics – I spotted four and would watch “Teacher’s Pet” again just to find the rest. They also include many characters from the Disney archives in a reverential homage to the company.

With the last day of school upon them, Spot/Scott and Leonard learn that their mother and teacher, Mrs. Helperman (voice of Debra Jo Rupp), has been selected as a finalist for the national teacher of the year award. Fala D. Roosevelt Elementary School Principal Strickler (voice of Wallace Shawn) rewards his favorite educator with a two-week trip to Florida to attend the award selection and donates his Wentawaygo motor home so she and Leonard can travel in style. There is one catch - no dogs allowed in the RV. Spot, to his dismay, must remain at home with his cronies, Mr. Jolly the cat (voice of David Ogden Stiers) and a loud-mouthed parakeet named Pretty Boy (voice of Jerry Stiller).

When Spot gets hold of the TV remote he stumbles on the Barry Anger show, live from Florida. Anger (voice of Jay Thomas) has as his guest the wacko mad scientist, Dr. Ivan Krank (voice of Kelsey Grammer), the inventor of NEATO – the Neuro Exchange Animal Transformation Operation. The doctor claims his device will revolutionize genetic engineering and can “turn dumb animals into dumb human being.” Spot sees the nutty professor as his savior and fulfiller of his dream to be a boy. The plucky canine sets off on the road in search of his master, Leonard, and a journey that will take him to Dr. Krank’s doorstep. It looks like Spot will get his wish but the story carries the warning: be very careful what you wish for.

Spot is theatrically voiced by Nathan Lane who gives his canine character intelligence on a par with his desire to be a boy. Shaun Fleming, as the voice of Leonard, plays the part of an average kid who just wants to play fetch-the-stick with his best friend, Spot. Debra Jo Rupp is enthusiastically air headed and prone to group hugs as the loving mom and dedicated schoolteacher, Mary Lou Helperman. Jerry Stiller is loud and obnoxious, and quite amusing, as the belligerent house bird that, with Mr. Jolly, heads out into the cold, cruel world to save his master, Leonard, and his friend Spot. Paul Reubens and Megan Mullaly are amusing as Dennis and Adele, an alligator and a mosquito that were the first unsuccessful experiments by Dr. Krank, whom they insist calling “Daddy.” “Don’t call me Daddy!!!” is the mad doctor’s stock reply.

Pay attention while you watch “Disney’s Teacher’s Pet” and you will be amazed at the variety of visual gags, nostalgic references and just plain fun. It’s the kind of movie that parents will watch again and again, too, along with the kids – though for different reasons. I give it a B+.

The art of Gary Baseman, whose characters resemble balloon animals fashioned by John Kricfalusi ("Ren and Stimpy"), is paired with elaborate Broadway show tunes, sly humor and offbeat references to Disney classics in the most unexpected offering from the Mouse House since "Lilo & Stitch."  While "Teacher's Pet" doesn't quite succeed at "Lilo's" level, it's unique look and sensibility make it a very welcome distraction from the January doldrums.

The film begins with a wonderfully weird doggy dream, where Spot is visited by the Blue Fairy (Rosalyn Landor) as the newly 'real' Pinocchio spastically slams his head into a cupboard in the background.  Spot awakens for the last day of school where he and Leonard learn that mom has been chosen as a finalist for N.E.A.T.O., a national teacher's award that requires a trip to Florida. There's a hitch, though - Principal Stickler (Wallace Shawn, "Duplex") is lending Mrs. H. is 'Wentawaygo,' but no dogs are allowed.  Spot will have to spend two weeks - fourteen in dog time - with his buddies Pretty Boy (Jerry Stiller, TV's "Seinfeld"), a tough parrot, Mr. Jolly (David Ogden Stiers, "Lilo & Stitch"), a 'fraidy cat, and eccentric pet sitter Mrs. Boogin (Estelle Harris, TV's "Seinfeld").

When Spot inadvertently changes the channel from Mrs. Boogin's soap opera to the Jerry Springer-like Barry Anger (Jay Thomas, TV's "Murphy Brown") show, he learns about Dr. Ivan Krank (Kelsey Grammer, TV's "Frasier"), a mad scientist who claims to be able to turn animals into humans and who happens to reside in Florida.  Spot chases after the Helpermans to fulfill his dream while back at home Pretty Boy and Mr. Jolly discover that Krank is a quack with a trail of botched experiments in his wake.  The duo set off to save their friend, but they're too late - Spot has become a man (those dog years were unaccounted for), now intent on staying with the Helpermans as his former master's dad.  Meanwhile, Leonard's dream of spending the summer with Spot has been trampled.  If a boy is to be parted from his dog, maybe, Leonard thinks, he can become the dog in order to preserve the friendship.

Series director Tim Bjorklund confidently makes the leap from the small screen.  The punchy visuals will engage the kids while adults will marvel at the surreal complexity of singing state maps ("A Whole Bunch of World") and a roadster trip that looks like it sprang off a Monopoly board.  The animation is an amalgamation of the retro look of old Warner Brothers cartoons (Krank's head looks like the orange Monster from old Bugs Bunny shorts) and the exposed skeletons and eyeballs on stalks of "The Simpson's" "Itchy and Scratchy."  Subtleties, such as the rain pouring down the Wentawaygo's rear window 'melting' Leonard's face, or the exuberance transmitting by the frenzied wagging of Spot's stubby tail, also make the animation emotionally satisfying.  Keep your eyes peeled for witty nods to Disney greats from the obvious ("Pinocchio," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves") to the more subtle ("Bambi," "Cinderella").

Composer Stephen James Taylor stretches from the series, adding pieces of classics like "When You Wish Upon a Star" and also contributes a couple of songs, but Randy Petersen and Kevin Quinn provide the music and lyrics for the most extravagant numbers ("A Boy Needs a Dog," "Small But Mighty," "I'm Movin' On").  In the last, vocals from the three main characters are layered into a crescendo while the screen splits into sixteen frames of action.  A a great opener, "I Wanna Be A Boy," is attributed to Brian Woodbury and Peter Lurye and features lyrics like 'I'm a dog who's learned to keep his leg down.' Baseman sets this number against the pastel neighborhoods of early Tim Burton (whose "Frankenweenie," another unexpected Disney release, is a major story influence here).

Vocal talent is all top notch with Lane leading the charge.  Casting is so spot on that the celebrity voices never distract, they are so in character.  Even the extremely distinctive tones of Grammer, so good as "The Simpson's" Sideshow Bob albeit always recognizable, are so in service to Krank that we forget who we are listening to.  Lane's energetic work makes the film explode off the screen.  Stiller excels with "Small But Mighty" while Ogden Stiers endearingly channels Stimpy for his similarly shaped alter ego.  Also featured are "Will & Grace's" Megan Mullally and Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) as Adele the mosquito girl and Dennis the alligator boy, two of Krank's failed attempts.

"Teacher's Pet" takes some weird twists delivering its simple message that one should be true to one's self.  It's the type of movie that makes one smile rather than laugh out loud, but it delivers a unique visual and aural experience that is true to the art of Gary Baseman.


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