***/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras C
screenplay by Bill Steinkellner & Cheri Steinkellner
directed by Timothy Björklund
by Walter Chaw If nothing else inventive, at the very least perverse, and at moments transcendently bizarre, the feature-length version of Disney Channel's "Teacher's Pet" is the brainchild of incorrigible animator/illustrator Gary Baseman. Think of his stuff as landing somewhere between R. Crumb and John Kricfalusi, all of bulging eyeballs and serpentine necks and skeletons a touch too eager to flee their skins. As the palette for a kid's entertainment, it's a bracing presumption that kids aren't stupid and, when given the choice, are capable of appreciating something outside the pale.
Faithful dog Spot (voiced by Nathan Lane) dons glasses and a beanie and infiltrates himself into his owner Leonard's (Shaun Flemming) fourth-grade class--where he shines. The lesson, beyond the typical friendship and love stuff, is to appreciate the opportunity to learn and to embrace the invitation to excel. Spot, re-dubbed "Scott Leadready" after a misunderstanding and a brand of pencil, has a penchant for quoting Shakespeare and waxing rhapsodic about democracy. He's the teacher's pet, of course, that teacher being his adoptive mother (Debra Jo Rupp). If not for a passel of irritating song vignettes (save one brilliant split-screen production) that feel like so much padding, Teacher's Pet would be a formidable picture, indeed, despite the lightness of its narrative.
Tired of envying Pinocchio's ascendancy to humanity, Spot seeks out mad scientist Dr. Krank (Kelsey Grammer) to get himself turned into a real live boy. Unfortunately, the dog-years conundrum turns him into a middle-aged sleazebag with a potbelly and Dan Hedaya's body hair--a fact grotesque enough in and of itself that's compounded by Spot not changing out of his little boy's clothes for the first few minutes of his transformation. I know it's gauche to talk about gay subtext in a kid's film, but there it is. Spot (or "My Man-Dog," as Krank likes to call him), proceeds on a very twisted course wooing Leonard's mom (and his mom, too, really) and warming to the idea that he could become his boy master's step-dad.
Teacher's Pet is a little like H.G. Wells's The Island of Dr. Moreau: a morality tale about loneliness, responsibility, and not fiddling around with nature that happens to be leavened by a good healthy dose of fiddling around with nature, lawlessness, and amorality. A scene in which Spot's animal pals, cigar-smoking parakeet Pretty Boy (Jerry Stiller) and fey cat Jolly (David Ogden Stiers), hitch a ride on the top of a train, is both delirious and disgusting. Clichés are generally avoided (those damned musical numbers notwithstanding), and by the end of the third act the thing has grown so surreal that something like relief washes over us when an almost-conventional ending is salvaged. But it's not without the lingering suspicion that what we've been sold is a manifesto about accepting your place. Genius.
Disney brings Teacher's Pet to DVD in a "family friendly" 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves the film's theatrical aspect ratio, making me really pretty puzzled as to what exactly is meant by "family friendly." I think it's a joke, though I don't know on whom. In any case, the image is clear and vibrant without anything in the way of motion artifacts or pixellation--nice all around. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix is likewise clear with a surprising amount of channel separation and atmospheric effects. Though an optional DTS-encoded track is predictably booming, I detected no real advantage in listening to one over the other. The first episode of the TV series--a hilarious introduction that surveys Spot's struggle not to piss on a hydrant and his dog-unmasking inability to eat a grape--is included on the disc, and it looks as good as the movie does.
Two deleted scenes are essentially partially-animated storyboard sequences with some of the voice action included. The first includes additional beats of Jolly and Pretty Boy on their way to save their pals, and there's one speech therein that I regret didn't make it into the picture. A short, six-minute doc on Gary Baseman ("The Art of Gary Baseman", natch) is fairly unrevealing, if harmless in its innocuous talking head-ism. Not-so-major revelation: Baseman's a weird guy. A series of trailers for Aladdin: Special Edition, The Incredibles, The Three Musketeers, and The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride - Special Edition precedes the main menu, while a music video by the uniquely unremarkable Christy Carlson Romano and an option to just watch the musical numbers with sing-along accompaniment round out the disc. Originally published: July 15, 2004.