Walt Disney Pictures (January 16 2004), Walt Disney Home Video (June 15 2004), single disc, 74 mins plus supplements, 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS Surround, Rated PG, Retail: $29.99
In a real Pinocchio-styled way, Teacher’s Pet tells the story of Spot, a dog who “wishes to be a real human boy”, opening with a “spot”-on recreation of the opening minutes of Walt’s 1940 masterpiece (though how he’d take to his film being warped the way it is here – stylistically and humorously – one can only imagine)! We soon learn that Spot, Leonard’s pet pooch, yearns to live the human life, and he disguises himself as a boy to visit school along with his owner. When Leonard’s teacher (who also happens to be his Mom) wins the Teacher Of The Year award, they’re quickly packed of to Florida, coincidentally where Spot has learned that wacko mad-scientist Dr Ivan Krank has developed a fantastical means of turning animals into human beings!
Spot becomes Scott faster than you can say “here, boy!” though no one has taken into account dog years – meaning that in human form Scott is a fully-grown up man, and falling for Leonard’s Mom! In one of the craziest triangle relationships yet seen on film – let alone a Disney picture! – Leonard finds himself frustrated with Scott’s moves on his Mother, while Scott himself misses the good old days he used to share with Leonard. Meanwhile, crazy Dr Krank is searching for his prime dog-man specimen so that he can trap him and put him on show to the world – something that doesn’t sit well with Leonard, Scott or Spot! Thinking through the only ways he can see to save the day, Leonard heads off to Krank’s for a showdown, and to turn himself into Scott’s dog…!
The Sweatbox Review:
As I have said in other reviews, I pretty much gave up on Disney Television Animation in the late 1990s. Tail Spin and Jungle Cubs did little for me other than to tarnish the reputation of the film that “inspired” them, and as for the knock offs to the recent features, such as Aladdin, Ariel’s Undersea Adventures, Timon And Pumbaa, Hercules, 101 Dalmatians, Buzz Lightyear, The Legend Of Tarzan, etc… the list seemed to go on and on. There were no gems, the likes of Duck Tales, The Wuzzles and Gummi Bears a distant childhood memory. However, with new shows such as Kim Possible, Dave The Barbarian and bought-in fare like Doug and Recess, the unit and the shows they produce for The Disney Channel in particular, again sparkle with a wit and invention that seems to be the only viable way to make animation work under such time and money constraints.
Into this line comes Teacher’s Pet – another show brought in from an “outsider” (this time created by Gary Baseman) – and which features decidedly non-Disneyfied designs. The actual look and feel of Doug’s First (and only?) Movie didn’t do much for me, though Recess: School’s Out was a pleasant diversion, with some better than expected animation and enjoyable story (I saw it with my mother, who is a school teacher, so that added to the fun). Before those respective movies, I’d never seen the original TV incarnations, and the same was true of Teacher’s Pet, my first taste of what lay in store coming from the theatrical teaser. I didn’t much like the look, but that Pinocchio homage poster and what I’d seen in the trailer surely whet my appetite! Following a dismal US box office release earlier this year, and with no date set for any UK issue, I jumped at the chance to find out if all the good things I’d heard about Teacher’s Pet, the movie, were true…
In this time where practically all animation seems to be about self-parody (the Shrek series, The Lion King 1½, many of the Disney sequels), Teacher’s Pet scores big in the number of jokey – and some unexpected – references to the Mouse’s past. The script is great, mixing good, bright Disney storytelling with the offbeat sensibilities of the outside creators. It’s also refreshing to see good old-fashioned cartooning again, without the obvious CG distractions – everything here is refreshingly “lo-tech” (apart from one brief computer assisted shot) and reminded me somewhat of John Kricfalusi’s Ren & Stimpy designs. Interestingly, in this day and age of computer animation breaking box office records, perhaps it’s the highly stylised look of the film that proved its commercial undoing. It’s certainly not down to the writing and voice cast.
As Spot/Scott, Nathan Lane returns to the Disney fold and is as good as expected, but the real standout here – and totally banishing his previous animation performances – is Kelsey Grammer, here giving his Frasier co-star and fellow serial voice artist David Hyde Pierce a run for his money. His mad scientist (played with shades of his similar character in Mickey Mouse’s 1995 short Runaway Brain) is great value, and, as with most Disney villains, he easily snags the best lines. Also among the Disney-friendly cast is David Ogden Stiers, though you’ll be hard pressed to recognise him as he slurs and lisps his way through the script! In fact, it’s a fairly impressive voice cast, not just for the movie, but in that Disney were able to draw this kind of talent to the television show in the first place. Particularly amusing is Debra Jo Rupp as Leonard’s perpetually happy Mom, and there are turns from Rob Paulsen and Paul Reubens as well, so you can guess which direction the voices take!
The animation has the same look as the show, and doesn’t seem to build on its TV roots in the way the South Park movie did. But it is more kinetic, with snappier editing and faster movement, and doesn’t try to compete with the full-scale big features we usually expect from the Mouse House. Director Timothy Bjorklund handles the material well, and so he should: he’s been with the show from its very first episode. The story’s scope certainly opens things up and the extra budget seems to have gone on the zappy big musical numbers. The songs really work and even though a few of them parody similar numbers in other animated features, they all actually work where they are placed here and move the story along, creating the right emotional beats. In truth, the songs mostly resemble Broadway theater, with one or two reprises being mini-operetta-lite, and providing a few guffaws even before the lyrics chime in. Among the musical writers are Cheri Steinkellner (who also co-writes the screenplay), Randy Petersen, Kevin Quinn, Stephen James Taylor, long-time Disney television and DTV composers who here get a chance to shine with a fun score (standouts being the song about America’s states and the use of the original show’s main theme as an opener/set up for the feature).
As a big screen experience, the film works in the way that the South Park boys transferred their small screen success, with a number of souped up set pieces and additional bolt-ons to the TV show. The “comedy musical road movie” approach reminded me greatly of the same division’s A Goofy Movie (Wallace Shawn as the school Principal is another prompt), though this film’s PG rating allows for some more risqué humor to be included. Thankfully, it’s not fart jokes (I don’t think I even spotted one!) and is more playful innuendo rather than anything truly offensive. All of these elements add a level of grand playing needed for such a project to work on the big screen, and it does so pretty well. Ironically, since the visuals never seem to break out of the limited animation technique, the look may be suited more to the small screen, where I am sure Teacher’s Pet will get a healthy – and deserved – second breath of life!
Is This Thing Loaded?
This being a Disney disc, we are “treated” to the usual previews as the disc spins up for the first time. Aladdin, The Incredibles (still only the original teaser, so don’t get excited), Mickey’s Musketeers, Lion King II and, via the optional Sneak Peek menu, Mulan’s 2-disc SE and a Disney Channel spot for Dave The Barbarian, are all included. The menus themselves set things off to a good start, echoing the road-trip nature of the main feature.
Best of all among the extras here, and great for novices like myself coming to the Teacher’s Pet universe for the fist time, is the inclusion of the series’ original Pilot Episode, Muttamorphosis, running a complete twenty-two minutes. I actually went with this bonus premiere episode before watching the film to set things up, which it does well enough, and I’d recommend catching this beforehand. Even though the episode opened within the usual confines of TV animation, I was impressed with the full frame rate animation. Whether this is indicative of the series itself, or whether they put their all into this first show, the production values, from the direction, camera angles and full orchestral score (“borrowing” from the classical composers, Carl Stalling like), were impressive. Also notable was the voice cast, featuring the same voices as from the feature (bar “guest” Grammer), who all make the most out of their characters. The writing didn’t seem to hold up against the speed of the feature, but its hits outweighed the misses. Without seeing the rest of the series, I couldn’t comment on the tone of the overall show, but I was surprised in that much of the material would have gone over many young kids’ heads and can see why the show only lasted one season in its time slot. But for older kids (and kids-at-heart adults), there’s a lot to laugh at here.
The Art Of Gary Baseman is a six-minute clip that starts off being a nauseous collection of people praising Baseman’s work. Before this whole Teacher’s Pet thing, I have to say that I hadn’t heard of the man himself before and thought that he’d been pretty lucky in being able to make money from a “style” that resembled something not much better than a child’s abstract drawings. That said, and I still think that’s a somewhat fair comment, this featurette was in danger of putting me off the man entirely, though once the preliminary back-slapping chit chat was out of the way and they began to show more varied examples of his work, I could see there was a little more there than at first meets the eye. While I wouldn’t put him up against the likes of Hirshfeld or even Groening as a caricaturist, this clip (which also makes a skimpy attempt to cover the inspiration and making of the film itself) did open up my eyes to his unique point of view, and I could see a mild Mad Magazine influence in some of his stuff.
In addition, there’s a Teacher’s Pet Music Video, performed by Christy Carlson Romano, whom Disney Channel fans will know as the voice of Kim Possible. Seems she’s the latest in Disney’s “Circle Of Stars” to break out and do the pop thing and could be seeing this as the next step in pursuing a career in the Hillary Duff/Lindsay Lohan mould. If so, then good luck to her: she certainly looks the part and has a great voice to match. The song isn’t half bad either, given that it was originally written by Joe Lubin for the 1950s Clark Gable/Doris Day comedy of the same name, and this funked up version does the business, though I kept thinking of Parker Posey’s rendition of it in Christopher Guest’s Waiting For Guffman, and just why exactly is Romano seemingly warming up to her older, female tutor?
Two Deleted Scenes round out the disc, each presented in storyboard form. One is actually more of an alternate ending, though both were wisely cut during production. No intros or optional commentary set them up, but it’s pretty obvious why they were trimmed and changed: they just don’t really work! Finally, there’s a good old-fashioned Song Selection, which basically replays all twelve songs from the movie with a subtitle feature that can be used to pick out the lyrics. It’s been some time since a full-blown Disney musical, and despite the songs here being, like South Park, a little knowing with their references, there are some good tunes on the bill! Needless to say that there are no theatrical trailers for the film itself, though at least the music video is full-length, unlike the usual Disney 30 second promos for their “also available” albums. All in all, and though a commentary would have been nice, it’s a fair mix of stuff.
Nice to see Disney returning to the inclusion of chapter index inserts. It would have been great if they’d used the original theatrical poster as the front cover sleeve itself, but the new “standing on top of the world” pose works just as well in another way (though why no Canada? The US seems to cut itself off at the top of the map). The insert is your basic list of scene selections, with a big, bright advert for Mickey’s Musketeers on the flip-side, with all the characters looking bang on classic model – looking forward to that one!
Ink And Paint:
A direct digital-to-digital transfer from Disney, Teacher’s Pet looks great. The 1.66:1 theatrical framing never looks cramped and the images have obviously been composed with this wider framing in mind. It’s a sharp transfer that preserves a film-like look, with no major edge-enhancement or compression artefacts spoiling the fun. I usually touch on the color balance of a disc, and in this case it’s a must to point it out: the vibrancy of the very bright palette has been taken good care of here, with strong, bold renderings and no bleeding. The bonuses and additionally included episode are presented in their original full frame, though a word of warning on the Art Of Baseman clip – do not adjust your set! The interviews are presented 4×3 full-frame, but the movie clips have not been letterboxed, leading to an anamorphic stretch in those brief sections.
As with the video, Teacher’s Pet has a great sound to it, stemming from the full blown orchestral score and massive sound mix. Since the film is fairly short at 74 minutes, Disney have seen fit to include both Dolby and DTS 5.1 Surround mixes, both of which will work out your system fairly well. I didn’t actually catch too much going on in the surrounds, except in a couple of big sequences, but it’s a lively soundtrack, with a great thumping bass that is well levelled against the other speaker outputs. English subtitles are also provided.
I was very nearly surprised by Teacher’s Pet, especially in how the film held up on its own without really having seen the series previously. If it hadn’t had been for the enthusiastic early word, then this feature would have hit me a lot more unexpectedly. I was surprised by the amount of adult-natured material in the film, however. Not that it’s dirty humor, but I found a great deal of the jokes to be classic, old-school references to things that the tots of today just won’t get! There’s certainly much in here that older teens and adults will enjoy, and if you know any kids that are itching to see this, I’d definitely recommend a sit down view with them, since you’ll probably find it funnier than them! Be sure that this isn’t your Grandfather’s Disney – it’s a hip new comedic style of its own, but it works and everything comes together. It would have been really interesting to see how it would have turned out had the exact same story and concept been produced in the full, lush animation we usually associate with the Studio, though that’s not to say that this approach doesn’t work. The look suits Teacher’s Pet’s offbeat subject like a glove and shows there’s a lot of life left in the old 2D dog yet!
Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?