Even those who have never seen the television series on which this animated Disney musical comedy is based should have a surprisingly good time at “Teacher’s Pet,” a weird, off-the-wall piece of surrealistic nonsense that should keep the kiddies transfixed with its colorful characters and slapstick mayhem over its brief 67-minute span while amusing adults with undertones of sophistication. (After all, it’s hardly the toddlers who will recognize the old Doris Day title tune that’s warbled over the closing credits.)
The script by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner announces its inspiration at the very start when the canine protagonist Spot, voiced by the ebullient Nathan Lane, watches a redrawn scene from Disney’s own “Pinocchio” on the tube. Spot, who’s been posing as a fourth-grade tyke for some time now with great success (that’s the premise of the series), expresses his fondest wish–to become a real boy. When he hears about a Florida crackpot named Dr. Krank (Kelsey Grammar) who claims to be able to transform animals into people, Spot hitches a ride with his young master Leonard (Shaun Fleming) and Leonard’s mom (Debra Jo Rupp), the fourth-grade teacher, to the sunshine state, where Krank does manage to make him human–though not quite as he expects. The transformation causes all sorts of trouble with Leonard, who’s always wanted nothing more than a dog to be his pal. Matters are further complicated by the arrival of the other Helperman house pets, a timorous cat named Jolly (David Ogden Stiers) and a bossy parakeet named Pretty Boy (Jerry Stiller). Everything works out fine in the end, of course, with an emphasis on uplifting morals about watching out what you wish for and sacrificing your own desires for your friends.
What sets “Teacher’s Pet” apart from the growing pack of TV-to-feature animated flicks are the exuberant tone brought to the material by the writers, director Timothy Bjorklund and the larger-than-life cast and the splashily stylized animation based on the work of illustrator Gary Baseman, which shows considerable wit and imagination. The tunes are good, too–and the picture repeatedly sets them up well by commenting on the absurdity of characters bursting into song at the slightest provocation. Some of the numbers are harmonically quite intricate for this sort of picture–a trait mirrored in the animation, which at times cleverly resorts to split-screen to show the various sung lines.
“Teacher’s Pet” isn’t about to join the roster of classic animated movies. But when set against pictures made from other Saturday-morning children’s cartoons, it stands out for its energy and bite; and while its message might not be particularly revelatory, the brash inventiveness with which it’s told (a few groaners apart) make it an enjoyable frolic for young and old alike.