Originally created 01/15/04

At the Movies: 'Disney's Teacher's Pet'



Even though "Disney's Teacher's Pet" is a kids movie based on the Daytime Emmy-winning (and now defunct) TV series, it has an energy and a twisted sense of humor that would fit perfectly on Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" late-night lineup, right alongside "The Family Guy."

Actually, a more apt cartoon to compare it to would be "Ren & Stimpy," with its bold colors, off-kilter characters, lightning-fast pacing and sight gags galore. There's so much happening on-screen sometimes, you'll want to see it more than once, just to catch all the tiny details. (A prime example of how we as a society need TiVo everywhere, all the time.)

The designs are the creations of illustrator Gary Baseman, as directed by Timothy Bjorklund from a script by former "Cheers" writers Bill and Cheri Steinkellner that's crammed with witty wordplay. (All four were involved with the original series.)

As engaging as the visuals are, though, the performances from a formidable voice cast - including Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer, Jerry Stiller, Megan Mullally, Paul Reubens and Jay Thomas - are just as stellar.

The film continues the TV show's story line about a talking dog named Spot (Lane) who longs, a la Pinocchio, to be a real boy. Tucking his tail into a pair of shorts and putting on glasses and a hat, Spot poses as a boy named Scott and goes to school each day with his master, Leonard (Shaun Fleming, also reprising his television role).

Leonard's mom, Mrs. Helperman (Debra Jo Rupp from "That '70s Show"), who's also their fourth-grade teacher, has no idea that the family dog is disguised as her star pupil. Leonard himself would rather not have Spot as a classmate - he wants a dog, a buddy to run and play fetch with him on the beach.

This fundamental conflict sets up one of many funny musical numbers, as well as a running gag about the absurdity of characters bursting into song. "Oh no, you're going to sing now, aren't you," Spot laments as Leonard proceeds to do just that.

One day, Spot spots a TV show about mad scientist Dr. Ivan Krank (Grammer), who's been manipulating animals' DNA to turn them into humans. So far, his experiments have produced a hybrid mosquito (Mullally) and a half-boy, half-alligator (Reubens). But Spot is inspired, and treks down to Florida - where Leonard and his mom happen to be vacationing - to visit Krank's lab.

The family's cat (David Ogden Stiers) and bird (Stiller), whose humor is pure Borscht Belt, schlep down to the swamp in hopes of changing Spot's mind. But it's too late - Spot goes under Krank's laser, and faster than you can say "It's alive!" is transformed into ... a grown man, which he is in dog years. And he looks an awful lot like Nathan Lane.

Even when all parties involved regret the situation they've found themselves in, and "Teacher's Pet" threatens to turn treacly with feel-good sentiments about the importance of friendship and liking yourself for who you are, the filmmakers keep the mood colorful, bouncy and funny.

"Disney's Teacher's Pet," a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated PG for some mildly crude humor. Running time: 74 minutes. Three stars out of four.