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Teacher's Pet

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: PG (For Some Mildly Crude Humor)

Running Time: 74 minutes

Starring the voices of: Nathan Lane, Shaun Fleming, Debra Jo Rupp, Kelsey Grammer, Jerry Stiller, David Ogden Stiers, Paul Reubens, Megan Mullally, Wallace Shawn, Rob Paulsen

Written by: Bill Steinkellner & Cherie Steinkellner

Directed by: Timothy Björklund

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $29.99

Features: Series Premiere Episode, Deleted Scenes, The Art Of Gary Baseman, Teacher's Pet Music Video by Christy Carlson Romano, Disney Song Selection. DVD-ROM: Register Your DVD

Specs: 1.66:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, English DTS 5.1, English Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (14 Scenes)

Released: June 15th, 2004

 

 

In the past few years, it seems Disney has made quite a business out of bringing their lesser profile animated film projects to the big screen. Produced by their television animation studio department, the films haven't just been direct-to-video sequels based on film franchises. In fact, Disney has given big screen go-aheads to movies based on their own television shows: who can forget 1999's "Doug's First Movie" or 2001's "Recess: School's Out"? Well apparently many of you did, even if these cheap-to-make extensions did decent box office (and probably bigger home video sales).

The latest movie to join this special line of animated theatrical releases is "Tacher's Pet." Based on the animated series, the film was scheduled to open in September 2003 but was then pushed back to January 2004. The film did open to some pretty stellar reviews, but in its first weekend out, it didn't even crack the top ten - despite some pretty heavy advertising. The 10 million dollar production only grossed a partly 6 million - so what went wrong? Who knows why families didn't go, or if 2-D animation is really dead. It'll always be a mystery why some people flock to some movies but won't even notice others.

I'm not ashamed to say that I am a GIANT fan of the television show the film is based on - I'm even willing to say that "Teacher's Pet" ranks as one of my favorite cartoons of all time. The show, which garnered three Daytime Emmys during its two-year run (one for Nathan Lane's vocal performance and two for Best Animated Show). Certainly I was really looking forward to the "Teacher's Pet" film, and the idea that there was going to be a film in the first place really excited me. I thought the show was brilliant - and seeing how everyone who was involved with the show was involved with the movie - I couldn't see how it could turn out bad in anyway.

The basic concept of the television show and movie is this: Spot (Nathan Lane) is a well-educated dog who yearns to go to school and learn more instead of staying at home. Spot doesn't except his destiny, and dresses up and thrives in the fourth grade. Making things slightly complicated is that his master, Leonard (Shaun Fleming) is also in the fourth grade and Leonard's mother (Debra Jo Rupp) is the the teacher.

The movie - in something that it does nearly flawlessly - sets up this concept for those who aren't familiar with the show (as a good film adaptation from a previous media should do). Yet there is a plot to it all still. The fourth grade has ended, and Spot (who goes by the name Scott Leadready II in school) suffers from Pinnochio syndrome and yearns to be a real human boy more than ever. Leonard on the other hand is tired of Spot's dreaming, and just wishes he was a regular dog he can play fetch with.

Things take interesting turns when Mary Lou, Leonard's Mom, is nominated for a N.E.A.T.O. - a type of Teacher Of The Year award. The ceremony is in Florida, and Mary Lou is lent an RV from the school's dog-hating principal (Wallace Shawn). Naturally, dogs aren't allowed in the RV and as Leonard and his Mom head off to Florida, Spot is forced to stay home.

Depressed, Spot changes channels on the television shortly after the two leave and learns about Dr. Ivan Krank (Kelsey Grammer) - a mad scientist coincidentally located in Florida who changes animals into humans but with failed results. Seeing the man as his Blue Fairy out of doghood, Spot chases after his family and meets up with them on the road. While Leonard knows his dog's secret, his Mom does not and Spot arrives as Scott. With heavy convincing (involving cross-dressing no less), the dog joins Leonard and his Mom on their trip.

Shortly after arriving, Spot reveals his real plans to Leonard. Leonard is reluctant to go through with Spot's plan, but he's more disappointed Spot didn't come for him. Regardless, the two head to Ivan Krank who does indeed give Spot his wish. But everyone forgets about dog time - which is seven times as much as human time - so Spot doesn't turn into a boy, but a hairy man with back pain. Though Crank has plans to keep Scott, and after a narrow escape, he runs into Leonard's mother and the two hit it off. As Leonard realizes just how complex Spot's transformation is, the dog (and man) must conclude for himself - is he really happy as a human, or do granted dreams come with sacrifices?

Let me just come straight out and say this: this movie was a huge let-down for me. I didn't think it was horrendous, but even if this big-screen version has the right ideas to wrap the series up (which it does as you'd expect) it ends up barely filling the barrels of potential it has. I don't understand how it happened either. The show's regular writers and co-creators - the husband and wife team of Cherie Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner - wrote the screenplay. And besides the entire cast returning (along with new voices too), director Timothy Björklund - who I believe directed every episode of the series - helmed the movie too.

Even if I don't know what went wrong, I can tell you the problems I had with the film. For one thing, it could have certainly benefited from being longer. The film's narrative is fine, and while it doesn't feel rushed, it is too straightforward (and of course, quite predictable). I felt a lot of scenes and a lot of the build-up could have been fleshed out more - the movie's climax ends up becoming too sudden and is incredibly short. The missed potential comes with the story: maybe more conflict (more action, mishaps and adventure would have been nice). There could have also been more with the supporting characters. The film develops things suitable overall, but because of the running time, there isn't much to it all and it left me unsatisfied. The story arc keeps going from one thing to the next - nothing really sinks in because something to change the story's direction is constantly happening.

The movie also leaves a lot of threads hanging, or just abandons them. Why no aftermath, or more of the principal who's hate for dogs was one of the series' strongest subplots? It's almost an obliged appearance - give the RV and leave. And the teacher awards - something should have definitely happened there, maybe as part of the climax. We should have seen it and it should have been explored, not just get a still of it during the film's end credits. How about some plot possibilities though - Crank running off with Spot? Other characters playing bigger roles and intertwining directly or better? (Mr. Jolly and Pretty Boy were great characters in the series - but could have done a lot more in the film, even if they have some enjoyable moments they are pretty wasted.) The film's plot is fine and what one should expect - but there could have been more to it as a whole and in smaller places. The movie could have been more in-depth to the show's concept (maybe only slightly), but they certainly had a lot to work with as far as a story and could have stretched it out more.

Worst of all though, even with the co-creators/writers and show's director behind the film, it doesn't exactly have the same feel as the show. The movie is definitely paced much faster, and feels like it's trying to play to a bigger audience. That is arguably the point of the film, but the show felt natural and played to a pretty general audience in the first place. There are only a few instances of the snappy, over-the-head humor - which was a trademark of the series. Simply put, the movie is not as enthralling as I'd imagine it to be nor is it as smart or clever - in a weird way, the film isn't as organic or firmly rooted as the series and even feels dumbed down. While I can see why people really liked the movie, I think when it is compared to the show the movie is pretty sub-par. I'm convinced that the movie could have been more cohesive, more detailed and a lot smarter (read: be just like the show). The fact that the movie turned out like this is not only puzzling to me, but also really baffling.

I suppose why I was so charmed with the series originally (besides the animation and talent involved) - was that it was entertaining for all ages and it was very smart. Like many great animated shows, it worked on one level for the kids and a much different, subtle level for adults (with tons of jokes and references bound to go over the heads of many youngsters). The show's characters and plotlines were not only very funny and very interesting, but very clever too. However, the movie has made me to believe that maybe the whole concept of a smart dog yearning to be a boy while learning educational and social lessons is only good when shown in brisk 11 or 22 minute segments.

The movie does run a few minutes over an hour, but some of you may be surprised to learn that like the days of Disney gone by, this whole foray is a musical. While I don't think the songs hurt the movie, I just don't really see a point to them. And since the movie is short - the songs are short. On average, a song lasts a minute-and-a-half (maybe slightly less) and that's it. These songs aren't very memorable, and they're more or less forced in - a lot of them happen randomly (sorry, but I despise the "A Whole Bunch Of World" song - the lyrics are corny and it's pointless since it doesn't advance the story or characters at all). The movie tries to make these songs (some of which lampoon Disney in a way) epic but they fall really short (listen to the cast recording of "The Producers" if you really want to see Nathan Lane's vocals in action). The opening song is a redone version of the show theme song, while the last song in the movie is a reprise/melody of that opening song and another one. I will say that it was pretty clever to have a new, jazzed up version of the song "Teacher's Pet" (from the classic movie) played over the end credits.

But there is still a bit to like about the movie - and it does make for decent family entertainment. Despite the fact that it's based on a series, the movie can stand pretty well on its own. There is also some good bits of humor (the allusions to Disney's version of "Pinnochio" aren't bad), even if they are more broadly stroked than in the show. Some of the scenes are pretty fun, and the conflict between Scott and Spot is developed pretty well (as well as why Spot is more suited to be a dog). The lessons, tired and true, aren't preachy but very important: be happy with you are, and be careful what you wish for (these lessons not only fit the film, but also the baggage the series carried). The movie is also edgy, and maybe a bit sick and controversial - particuarly the fact that Leonard's Mom falls in love with her dog (as a man) - even if she doesn't know it. I'm sure that bit is and will be a turn-off to some parents, and disturb a few kiddies who really think about it. For fans of the show thought, the series is wrapped up here as Spot finally accepts who he is and becomes proud of it - which is probably how you expected it to end in the first place.

Timothy Björklund may not have paced the film as well as the TV show, but he certainly must be credited for his artistic talents. Björklund has brought Gary Baseman - who not only co-created the show, but conceived the visual design for the series and movie - onto a much larger canvas. In comparison with the television show, the animation in the "Teacher's Pet" movie is not only a lot sharper, but more colorful and way more detailed. The movie has tons of great artwork that is weird and wacky - Baseman's wonderful style - with thin characters and long noses - is all his own. I love his skewed, ultra-weird visuals and they certainly delight here - the movie is chocked full of memorable images (that includes pop art and famous painting parodies). If you love animation, particuarly more twisted abstract designs, then there's a lot to enjoy here (and make you sad that the varied world of 2-D animation is pretty much extinct).

Finally, the show's voice actors are at their very best here and add a lot of enjoyment. Nathan Lane was perfectly cast as Spot in the show, and he's once again great. He's passionate, but his voice gets to show range - sadness, quite a bit of excitement and even goes down an octave when he has to give off a more "Manly-Manning" boy. Lane has done lots of voice work over the years, but I still think his role as Spot has remained a career best with his entire of body work.

Shaun Fleming is excellent as he makes Leonard heartfelt, and captures his torn heart. Leonard loves his dog and wants to do what's best for him, but he really wants him to be normal. Debra Jo Rupp (from TV's "That '70s Show") perfectly plays the exuberant, loving and always happy teacher mother - who's cheesy in the best sense of the word. David Odgen Stiers and Jerry Stiller are also in as the calm and crazy duo of Mr. Jolly and Pretty Boy are fabulous (just like on the show) - and I still wish there was more of them in the movie. The always amazing Wallace Shawn gets his fun in as the uptight Principal Stickler, and Rob Paulsen is another supporting character who's back as the creepy student Ian. Paul Reubens and Megan Mullally play the failed creations of Dr. Ivan Krank quite well, and speaking of Crank, Kelsey Grammer plays him with much glee - it's essentially his Sideshow Bob schtick from "The Simpsons" but with a European accent. And last but not least, in a stroke of genius casting, there's Jay Thomas as the very enjoyable Jerry Springer-knock-off Barry Anger (I'm assuming he was cast because the Steinkellners worked with him on "Cheers" - but where's Emeril - who yes, helped develop that sitcom flop - in all this?)

I was not only incredibly disappointed that "Teacher's Pet" flopped at the box office, I was incredibly disappointed in how average the film itself was. Even if some amazing television shows have made the jump to the big screen quite successfully, perhaps some programs - even with all the original talent involved - should just be left to their standard running times. It's true this amazing series deserved a big way to wrap itself up, but instead of trying to make a huge leap and go out with a bang, maybe the filmmakers should have thought smaller or have a more layered approach. Like a dog itself, this film whimpered - but in more ways than one.

 

Presented in the usual Disney "family-friend" widescreen at the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 (it's anamorphic to boot), "Teacher's Pet" has one of the best transfers I've seen in a really long time. This is near reference quality for an animated film if I say so myself - the only flaw I noticed is a bit of noise here and there that's it. Everything about this transfer is great: the image is incredibly sharp and is filled with depth, the print used is spotless, detail is flawless and the color saturation is just amazing. The colors don't bleed and are incredibly vibrant and bold - the film has a wide color scheme with plenty of shades and hues, the transfer certainly makes it all sparkle. This transfer perfectly captures Gary Baseman's wonderful artistic style that the film wonderfully shows off (you can pause the DVD and you can have a painting on your TV even) - I couldn't be happier with the end result of this transfer.

 

With the extras sparse and the movie short, Disney has kindly packed on a English Dolby Digital 5.1 track and an English DTS 5.1 track - both of which are stellar. Dynamic range and fidelity are great on both tracks, and the soundstages are spiffy too. Dialogue is clear and very easy to hear, while there are a bevy of surrounds: the road trip to Florida, the sounds of the beach and Ivan Kran's lab - especially during the climax when the laser goes haywire and when Spot is zapped with it to transform, and his whole transformation experience. The music also packs an impressive punch. The film is a musical and that works to the strength of the tracks. Besides the cool musical score, the less-then-memorable songs do sound great and are mixed well through the speakers with fine imagine and a strong structure to them. The vocals come out loud, the backing chorus sounds very nice and ultimately the music adds to the energy and is represented well. On another note, the subwoofer on both tracks is pretty good too. Out of the two tracks though, I'd say the DTS wins slightly because there's a bit more depth to the sounds overall, and comes across as a more full experience. Still, the tracks are really neck and neck and the Dolby Digital is excellent too. No disappointments here either. English closed captions and subtitles are included.

 

Given the film's poor box office performance, I suppose Disney couldn't really justify a lot of extras to be put on here. But all hope is not loss: in an exciting move, they have put on the Series Premiere Episode of the television show, entitled "Muttamorphosis." Those who are unfamiliar with the show can now see how great it is, and see how it all began. The episode introduces us to the main characters of the series, Spot's love of learning and how he pulls off going to school. It also focuses on Leonard's jealousy of his dog, and how he isn't thrilled with the fact of him coming to school - or that he is running for class president (Leonard tries to outdo him by running too). This is a great episode of the show and certainly a fabulous pilot (it's scary to think that as good as this episode is, the show has done even better) - and as evidenced, you can compare the show's humor here and pacing to what the film offers (both are pretty different if you ask me - the episode is definitely smoother, more relaxed and smarter than the movie). Needless to say, I'd pick this episode - and the show itself - over the movie any day. Couldn't Disney have put in the whole first season with this DVD too, or maybe a few more episodes?

Two Deleted Scenes are included on the disc, both with completed voice tracks and in animatic form: "Pretty Boy & Mr. Jolly On The Road" and "N.E.A.T.O. Awards." The first scene, lasting about two minutes has Pretty Boy and Mr. Jolly finding different ways to reach Spot - it's fun, but doesn't really help the movie. The second scene is more of an alternative ending and pretty good if you ask me. It lasts fifty seconds, but I think if the filmmakers expanded the elements behind it they could have had a much better ending to the movie.

The Art Of Gary Baseman is a six minute featurette about the man who designed the world of the series and the movie... artist Gary Baseman. We hear producer Stephen Swofford, Nathan Lane, director Timothy Björklund, Megan Mullally, Wallace Shawn, David Odgen Stiers, Jerry Stiller, Shaun Fleming, Christy Carlson Romano, Cherie Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner about the man himself, offering praise and trying to describe his art style. We also hear a lot from Baseman himself, who shows off sketches and paintings he's done and describes his work and his involvement. Topped with film clips too, it's very nice - especially since Baseman is such a major part of the movie and show. Still, why not a featurette with the voice actors and filmmakers talking about the show and movie itself? That would have been great.

The Teacher's Pet Music Video has Christy Carlson Romano (of Disney Channel fame!) singing the end credits song. It's about three minutes, and in non-anamorphic widescreen and (surprise!) English Dolby Digital 5.1. Rounding the disc off is a Disney's Song Selection feature where you can jump to the movies song, Sneek Peeks and with DVD-ROM you can register your DVD.

 

I was disappointed by the "Teacher's Pet" movie - but if you were interested in seeing it, do rent it - same goes for you fans of the show that missed it in theaters. While the extras are slim on the release - there is some decent stuff, particuarly the TV show's very first episode. The transfer is gorgeous the Dolby Digital and DTS sound mixes are great too. So if you loved the film - go out and pick it up. And Disney: please get crackin' and release the entire "Teacher's Pet" series on DVD.