Teacher's Pet (2004)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/14/07 22:10:51

"A boy and his dog, whom some think is a boy."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I have never seen anything quite like “Teacher’s Pet,” not counting the cartoon series on which it is based. Yes, this is yet another kids’ TV series turned into a feature film, and yes, I’m guessing I’m missing out on some of the story by not being an avid follower of the series. (I’ve seen a few episodes, but no more.) But even if you’ve never even heard of the Disney series, don’t let the film’s easy money roots fool you. In its own twisted, unique way, this is one stunning film.

The first thing you’ll notice is the animation style, which is the thing I’d never seen anything quite like. It looks like a 1930s musical cartoon filtered through the style of 1970s underground comic books, then filtered yet again by the modern experiments of the current animation renaissance. If you think what’s happening in today’s cartooning is dull, just look at this movie. Not only do the sharp, bright characters contrasted with soft painted backgrounds create a lush visual treat for the audience, but every frame oozes with a high level of pure, well, strangeness. Houses sing, body parts are out of whack, and nothing anywhere looks ordinary. This is a good thing.

The story is also nothing ordinary. “Teacher’s Pet,” the show, is about a talking dog named Spot who’s so smart that he dresses up like a kid and goes to school, using the name Scott; his ruse is so clever that the teacher doesn’t realize that “Scott” - the best in class, hence the title - is the very dog belonging to her son. Weird enough, but then there’s “Teacher’s Pet” the movie, which begins with a brutally funny parody of “Pinocchio” that segues into Spot’s own desires to be a real live boy, and not just a pretend one.

Spot/Scott is voiced by Nathan Lane, and so it’s no surprise that we get plenty of musical numbers. Some of these tunes are the typical Disney goods, a little more frantic than usual, but still fun, bouncy, typical numbers. There are other songs, however, that reveal that this is not an ordinary musical but a sideways (and always intelligent) spoof of one, like the songs of the “South Park” movie, but within a PG rating. There’s one Broadway-sized number that ends with mice, roaches, and a parakeet who sports stubble (voiced by Jerry Stiller!) all dancing and marching proudly, and that alone should clue you in on what else to expect here. (My favorite tunes include a throwaway number that names all fifty states alphabetically and, best of them all, a catchy jazz number from Jack “Schoolhouse Rock” Sheldon.)

Anyway, Spot’s dream of becoming a boy may just come true, thanks to Dr. Ivan Crank (Kelsey Grammer), a mad scientist who’s looking to “transform dumb animals into dumb human beings.” And so Spot, as Scott, hitches a ride with his boy Leonard (Shaun Flemming), who’s on the way to Florida to celebrate his mom’s nomination as Teacher of the Year. (Florida, you see, is where Dr. Crank is.) Sadly, Spot isn’t too keen on the notion that Crank is the bad guy in this picture, a Dr. Moreau for kids.

What I didn’t expect out of this film was its high joke count. Surprise, “Teacher’s Pet” is a riot. The screenplay, from series writers Bill and Cherie Steinkellner, is loaded with chunks of deliciously goofy dialogue and insane situations. Here’s a film with a wonderful sense of humor, both vocally (“We may be failures,” one of Crank’s mutant creatures declares, “but we’re failures who love you!”) and visually (a sign next to an important lever on Crank’s equipment reads “the Big Lever’s Older Sister,” hee hee).

And while its bizarre look and darker themes may be too freaky and scary for the littlest viewers, most kids will enjoy the film’s twistedness. As will parents, and anyone else looking for that rare movie treat, something refreshingly new, unlike anything they’ve seen before, anywhere. Even if, ironically, it’s based on something a few years old.

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