Disney's Emmy-award winning Saturday morning cartoon Teacher's Pet is about a pooch named Spot (voiced by Nathan Lane) that couldn't bear to spend another afternoon at home while his master Leonard (Shaun Fleming) trotted off to school. Disinterested in the excruciatingly dull life of a dog, Spot tried on some of Leonard's old clothes, topped it off with a beanie, and joined him in his fourth grade class under the quickly-cobbled-together identity of Scott Leadready II. This feature film incarnation begins with school about to let out for the summer. Mrs. Helperman (That '70s Show's Debra Jo Rupp), Leonard's mother-slash-teacher, is informed that she's been nominated for an award by the National Excellent American Teacher Organization (N.E.A.T.O.), and Principal Strickler (Wallace Shawn) offers to let her use his R.V. to head down to the ceremony in Florida. His only rule is that no dogs are allowed, so Spot's told he has to wile away the next couple of weeks at home with a blurry-eyed sitter, lithping feline Mr. Jolly (David Ogden Stiers), and gruff boid Pretty Boy (Jerry Stiller). While watching TV, he spots a talk show appearance by Dr. Ivan Krank (Kelsey Grammer), a wacko scientist who claims to be on the verge of transforming animals into humans. Spot is elated at the possibility of becoming a real boy instead of just dressing the part, and since Krank's lab co-wink-a-dentally happens to be in Florida too, he catches up with the family and convinces them to let him...errr...Scott tag along. At first, Leonard thinks Spot just couldn't stand to be away from him for two weeks. He's crushed when he finds out that he's just being used as a ride, and he's outright horrified upon hearing about Spot's scheme for transmogrification. Still, it's Spot's lifelong dream, and Leonard grudgingly agrees to help him out. Back at the homestead, Mr. Jolly and Pretty Boy learn about Krunk's string of hideously mutated failures and decide to make a road trip of their own to try to stop Spot in time.
Teacher's Pet is a family movie for people who instinctively wince upon hearing the phrase "family movie". Those two words bring to mind sappy sentimentality, lame stabs at humor, and mind-numbing, plodding inanity. Although Teacher's Pet doesn't approach the height of Pixar's output or The Iron Giant, it's clever, witty, and likely to appeal to both children and their parents. Kids will probably be sucked in by the story and songs, while older viewers ought to appreciate the innumerable gags scribbled in the margins and just the basic fact that Teacher's Pet doesn't feel like it's pandering to the junior set. Not too many kiddie flicks leave its characters stranded in underwear, have an eyeball dangling from a misshapen mutant's eyesocket, or a pelt hanging onto a cat's skeleton by a thread. Despite how that might sound, there's nothing gruesome or offensive in the movie, although apparently the MPAA felt obligated to nudge Teacher's Pet into PG territory. The description given on CARA's site is "crude humor", as ambiguously defined as that is. I'm not surprised that Teacher's Pet was slapped with a PG rating, but I wouldn't have been shocked or appalled if it had been rated G either.
The way the plot unfolds caught me by surprise. Convention demands that this sort of movie feature a prolonged journey fat-packed with wacky misadventures, culminating in a climax set in Krank's lab where Spot realizes that he doesn't want to be turned into a real boy after all. Although parts of that certainly hold true, Scott and Leonard actually arrive at Krank's swampy lair halfway through, and the meat of the movie is about the aftermath. It's almost as if Teacher's Pet knows that its viewers have suffered through so many cookie-cutter kids flicks that it tries to be different. It's certainly creative, particularly its clever play on the concept of dog years, getting a huge laugh while setting up a major plot point. Spot's daydreaming of a particularly unattractive Blue Fairy during a Springer-esque talk show spoof, an on-the-Spot invention of an entire family ("Hey, I do th' cliched Irish dialogue around here!"), talk shows' obsession with follow-up episodes, Mexican soap operas, and Leonard's other housepets duping a nearly-blind petsitter with vermin are just a few of the more memorable gags in the movie. Although Teacher's Pet tosses in a bunch of musical numbers in the traditional Disney fashion, it has this sly self-awareness, frequently winking at the absurdity of people bursting into song for no apparent reason. Disney flicks are repeatedly used as a target in the movie, opening with a spoof of Pinocchio (whose premise, needless to say, is similar) and continuing with nods to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and 101 Dalmations. The animation is simplistic but stylized, full of exaggerated features drawn with thick black lines. Although the basic style isn't as immediately eye-catching as Disney's sleeker, more detailed, exponentially pricier productions, it has a distinct personality, something lacking in some of Disney's more recent efforts. Teacher's Pet isn't an instant classic, but it is a clever, witty movie that should appeal to a wide spectrum of viewers, at least deserving of a rental.
Video: Teacher's Pet is presented at Disney's "family friendly widescreen" aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and the disc is enhanced for 16x9 displays. Part of the job description for reviewing for a DVD enthusiast website is being relentlessly nitpicky, harping on about the most inconsequential details for paragraphs at a time, but I'll spare you that for this review. Teacher's Pet is perfect. This appears to be a direct digital transfer, as none of the usual indications of a celluloid source are present: no specks, grain, nicks, or visible wear. Even the authoring is flawless, free of any underlying noise, compression artifacts, or edge haloes. The image is exceptionally sharp and sports an assortment of bright, vivid colors. Although the style of animation doesn't offer that same "wow!" factor that I get from one of Disney's hundred million dollar-plus animated productions, the presentation is absolutely flawless, and I can't imagine Teacher's Pet looking any better on a home theater until a high-def version starts making the rounds.
Audio: Complementing the anamorphic widescreen visuals are a pair of six-channel soundtracks, one in Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kbps) and the other encoded in DTS. The movie's dialogue comes through with crystal clarity, and the lyrics in the dozen musical numbers are also clear and easily discernable, never drowned out by the instrumentation. Actually, some of the music in the earlier songs struck me as too low in the mix. I guess I expect a multichannel musical to be booming and expansive, engulfing every square inch of the room. The first few songs sounded almost restrained, despite being reinforced in the rear channels. The surrounds also prominently come into play in some of the more energetic sequences, most memorably a Willy Wonka-ish jaunt through Spot's noggin. There are also a few nice scattered uses of low-frequency effects, particularly blasts from Dr. Krank's N.E.A.T.O. transmogrifier. All in all, it's a good mix with an impressive amount of stereo separation across the fronts, but I do wish the first few songs were a little beefier. Teacher's Pet also includes English subtitles and closed captions.
Supplements: Although Teacher's Pet begins with a scoopful of exposition to help bring new viewers up to speed, the uninitiated will probably want to take a peek at the pilot first, which is helpfully provided on this disc. "Muttamorphisis" has 22 minutes to introduce characters and establish the series' basic premise versus the couple of minutes crammed into the movie, so things are obviously a little better fleshed-out in this bonus episode. It doesn't hurt that it's extremely funny either, as clever and well-written as the movie. The episode (4x3; stereo) looks and sounds about as great as its big-screen counterpart too, definitely a sizeable leap over what I'd expect to see on cable TV.
The featurette "The Art of Gary Baseman" spends six minutes on the look of the movie, featuring comments by producer Stephen Swofford, director Timothy Björkland, writers Bill & Cheri Steinkellner, soundtrack contributor Christy Carlson Romano, voice actors Megan Mullally, David Ogden Stiers, Wallace Shawn, Nathan Lane, Shaun Fleming, Jerry Stiller, and, of course, Gary Baseman himself. Gary gets the most screentime, chatting about the spark that inspired the series, showing off conceptual sketches, and noting some of the visual motivations behind the look of certain characters. As you could probably guess from the title of this featurette, some of Baseman's other imaginative art is also shown. I didn't know he was the guy behind the doodles for the board game "Cranium". Oddly, the footage from the movie that's incorporated into the featurette is vertically stretched. Guess the editor didn't notice.
There are also two deleted scenes, shown in animatic form with the actors' voices playing over the storyboards. "Pretty Boy & Mr. Jolly on the Road" (1:52) shows more of Spot's fellow pets clawing their way to sunny Florida, and their journey is resolved more clearly in the slightly-different alternate ending of "N.E.A.T.O. Awards" (0:52).
"Disney's Song Selection" allows viewers to hop directly to any of the movie's musical numbers or to play them all in succession. Subtitles display the lyrics to each of these songs too. Also on the musical end of things is a video for "Teacher's Pet", performed by Christy Carlson Romano. The music video has Romano strolling around a school (a familiar sight for anyone who watched Even Stevens with the same religious fervor I did), belting out the movie's title track. Neither the song nor its video are particularly memorable.
The DVD opens with a few plugs for other Disney animated releases: full-frame promos for special editions of Aladdin and The Lion King II, as well as letterboxed trailers for The Incredibles and The Three Musketeers. These are also viewable by selecting "Sneak Peeks" from the main menu, which additionally include a look at a special edition of Mulan and the Disney Channel series Dave the Barbarian. The disc includes a set of 16x9 animated menus, and the movie's been divided into fourteen chapters.
Conclusion: Smart, funny, and completely under the radar, Teacher's Pet is a movie that's worth discovering on DVD. If you haven't seen the series before, be sure to dive into the Bonus Features menu and watch "Muttamorphisis" first. I wouldn't have complained if the price were a few bucks lower, but animation fans of any age should consider giving Teacher's Pet at least a rental. Recommended.
Related Links: DVD Talk's Danielle Henbest recently conducted an interview with Cheri Steinkellner about Teacher's Pet. Gary Baseman has an official site for anyone who wants to take a look at some of his other art or buy some swag.