Disney's Teacher's Pet tries hard to be a musical extravaganza in the form of a quirky animated kid's movie, but ultimately it can't get past the inanity of its bizarre plot about a dog who dreams of becoming a human boy, and his master, who just wants a dog.
Based on the popular Emmy-winning Saturday morning cartoon show, Teacher's Pet revolves around a dog, Spot Helperman (voiced by Nathan Lane), who, for as long as he can remember, always wanted to be a human boy--so much so that he puts on pants, tucks his ears underneath a beanie cap and disguises himself as Scott Leadready II, a ''kid'' who goes to his friend's, er, master's fourth grade class. Spot's master, Leonard (voiced by Shaun Fleming), on the other hand, just wishes he had a real dog to play with, to catch sticks and lick his face. Fat chance with this pooch. Desperate for any chance to be human, Spot discovers there's an experimental scientist in Florida, Dr. Ivan Krank (voiced by Kelsey Grammer), who, although labeled a complete wacko, claims he can change animals into humans. Spot sets out to find Krank and make his dreams come true, hitching a ride with Leonard and his schoolteacher mother (voiced by Debra Jo Rupp) on their way to the Sunshine State for a national teacher's contest. Several tiresome musical numbers later, Leonard tries unsuccessfully to convince Spot to stay a dog, and they find the diabolical doctor in the Florida swamps. Zap! Spot/Scott finally gets his wish. Be careful what you wish for, little doggie.
It's a good thing Teacher's Pet incorporates some veteran voiceover talents to lend at least a little credibility to the silliness. Lane, as the determined canine, and Grammer, as the evil scientist, are animation pros--Lane from his Lion King days and Grammer from his hysterical stints on The Simpsons. They do their darnedest to bring out the best in the borderline corny dialogue from Pet's husband-and-wife writing team, Bill and Cheri Steinkellner, with lines like Spot's query, ''What's with this family and singing? I'm feeling Von-Trapped.'' But Lane and Grammer are consummate showmen, delivering the lines and handling the singing chores with aplomb, especially Grammer (get this man a Broadway show, pronto). Other Pet denizens include Jerry Stiller as the Helperman's perpetually annoyed parrot Pretty Boy and David Ogden Stiers as the agoraphobic but cuddly cat Mr. Jolly. And if you listen closely, you'll also hear Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman) and Will & Grace's Megan Mullally voicing two of Krank's experiments--with alligators and mosquitos, respectively--gone strangely awry.
Despite a weak story and uninspiring songs, Teacher's Pet has a unique animated style, and that's its one key selling point. Renowned illustrator Gary Baseman, whose art is frequently featured in top magazines such as The New Yorker and Rolling Stone, got the idea for Pet when he wondered what his dog did all day long when he wasn't there. He teamed up with the Steinkellners (TV's Cheers) and created the TV version of Teacher's Pet, which debuted in 2000 and has won several awards, including a Daytime Emmy for best animated TV series. In the movie version, first-time director Timothy Bjorklund sticks with Baseman's eclectic and off-kilter style and churns out the artist's illustrations at a fur-flying rate. There's lots to see and several inside jokes to catch, including poking fun at Disney classics such as Pinocchio (the Blue Fairy done Baseman style is hilarious) and 101 Dalmatians (ditto with the ''Twilight Bark''). It's been a long time since hand-drawn art has given audiences something just as distinctive as its rival, the somewhat more versatile computer-generated animation.
Disney's Teacher's Pet is yet another silly, song-filled, overdone kiddie movie, but at least the engaging animation and decent vocal performances will keep parents' grimaces to a minimum.