Teacher's Pet
review by Gregory Avery, 23 January 2004

In the animated feature Teacher's Pet, Spot is a dog who wants to be a boy, much to the exasperation of Leonard, the boy he lives with -- Leonard just wants to have a dog who's content with being a dog and doing things like fetching a stick. Spot, though, has gone so far as to accompanying Leonard to school each day (like the lamb did with Mary)---wearing human clothes and a Jughead-like hat (which Mary's lamb did not deign to do), he's become a classmate, named Scott, with a perfect attendance record (dogs are punctual), in a class taught by Mrs. Helperman, Leonard's mother, who never notices that Scott is a dog. Well, for one thing, Spot/Scott talks, albeit here with a comically lamenting voice provided by Nathan Lane. Plus, Spot has blue fur and, wonder of wonders, a navel.

The film is based on an animated TV series which was, in turn, based on the work of artist Gary Baseman, who was allegedly when he began wondering what his dog, Hubcaps, got up to when he wasn't home. The film, which openly acknowledges its debt to Pinocchio by ribbing that animated film in the very first scene---sends Spot, Leonard, and Leonard's mother barreling down to Florida, where the mother is quickly dispensed with when she goes off to participate in some sort of teaching competition. That leaves Spot and Leonard free to track down one Dr. Krank, who has developed a method whereby he can change animals into humans (and who is voiced by, believe it or not, Kelsey Grammer). Training his mighty ray machine on a frog, he activates it and, afterwards, discovers that the frog can now say "moo," like a cow. (Which was the point at which the movie then totally won me over.)

The characters and artwork in Teacher's Pet look like a cross between the squiggly creations in Max Fleischer's cartoon and what you might find doodled on a schoolkid's three-ring binder with a ball-point pen. The film got run-over on its opening weekend by the Hobbits and the Orcs, which will probably cause another round in the debate over whether old-style cell-drawn animation is less popular than Pixar animation; one other reason may be that people aren't too sure just what to expect from the movie. Both unpredictability and the hand-drawn quality are what gives the movie its charm, though: at just over 70 minutes, the picture moves at a clip that never seems too fast, and the plethora and array of jokes are amazing---they even manage to get in some jabs at "hate-mongering" television jokes, and the lush song score both approximates and parodies the ones that became popular with The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast.

Spot does get his wish to become a "hairy-knuckled grown-up" (his "dog years" figure in his transformation), and in trying to explain his presence to his mother, the roles in Leonard's home life become all confused---at one point, it looks like the only way to restore order once again is if Leonard turned himself into a dog. The movie's daffiness, its wildly inventive and delightfully odd quality, gives it energy and the courage to go out on a narrative limb. But it also has to admit that being a dog has its advantages, too, and that friendship may be more important than just becoming a "hairy-knuckled grown-up." That this observation feels right and does not come off as a conventional cop-out is yet one more credit to the film's advantage. That, plus the song near the beginning where, in a borrowed "Wentawaygo," Spot, Leonard and Leonard's mother sing a breathless cadenza that crams in references to all fifty states, and when one character observes, "Florida-smorita! It's Jersey with palm trees!"

Directed by:
Timothy Björklund

Nathan Lane
Shaun Fleming
Debra Jo Rupp
David Ogden Stiers
Jerry Stiller
Kelsey Grammer
Paul Reubens
Megan Mullally

Written by:
Bill Steinkellner
Cheri Steinkellner

PG - Parental
Guidance Suggested.
Some material may
not be appropriate
for children.







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