Nathan Lane is spot on in stylish ‘Teacher’s Pet’
Smart and stylish, “Disney’s Teacher’s Pet” is one family film that has appeal for adults as well as children. With a stellar cast of familiar voices, sharp dialogue and a clutch of lively Broadway-style songs, the film’s animation style is edgy and minimal, which imbues it with unexpected freshness and immediacy.
It opens with a clip of “Pinocchio,” in which the Blue Fairy is singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The Disney classic is playing on a TV set, and Spot the Talking Dog (Nathan Lane) is asleep dreaming that the Blue Fairy is assuring him that if he wishes hard enough he can indeed turn into “a real boy.” Spot is the pet of Leonard Helperman (Shaun Fleming), whose model schoolteacher mother, a single parent (Debra Jo Rupp), has become a finalist in a national teachers award competition in Florida.
Mrs. Helperman’s principal (Wallace Shawn) provides her with a motor home for the 2,000-mile journey, but he’s a dog-hater so the veritable bus is off-limits to Spot. Also left behind, but not for long, are Leonard’s other pets, his tough-talking canary Pretty Boy (Jerry Stiller) and his timid cat Jolly (David Ogden Stiers).
Heartbroken but determined, Spot becomes a stowaway and makes his way to the lab of Florida-based scientist Dr. Krank (Kelsey Grammer), who claims he can turn animals into humans -- with unexpected and disturbing results. Director Timothy Bjorklund and writers Bill and Cheri Steinkellner mercifully resist heart-tugging through briskness and humor, settling for an amusing wistfulness in Leonard and Spot’s predicament. The result is that the film’s tone is wise and tonic rather than sentimental, unusual for animated family entertainment, to say the least.
Although the film’s 11 songs are the work of numerous composers and lyricists, they seem all of a piece with each other and with the film as a whole; Randy Petersen and Kevin Quinn’s “A Boy Needs a Dog” emerges as the film’s anthem. Lane, Grammer and others get to sock them over in the brash and stirring all-out Broadway tradition.
By the same token the Steinkellners’ dialogue is witty and tart. Lane, Grammer, Fleming and Rupp don’t merely lend their voices to the animated characters but also give full-fledged, well-nuanced portrayals, especially Lane in his distinctive dual roles.
Bjorklund and his fellow storyboard artists, plus a huge team of animators and specialized artists and technicians, blend their talents and skills seamlessly to create a work of a bold, simple graphics that bring a sophisticated, ultra-contemporary take to the traditional minimalist drawings of children’s comic books and cartoons.
When, for example, the Helpermans arrive in Florida there’s a deft nod to classic Miami Beach Deco buildings, and when Spot, now transformed not so happily into a human adult, is feeling down and out, he finds himself in a seedy hotel room with a brightly lighted sign just outside his window -- a classic film noir setting.
“Disney’s Teacher’s Pet” suggests that it’s best to accept yourself as you are and to appreciate the relationships you have, but it above all aims to be a good time.
‘Disney’s Teacher’s Pet’
MPAA rating: PG, for some mildly crude humor
Times guidelines: Suitable family fare
Nathan Lane...Voice of Spot/Scott
Kelsey Grammer...Voice of Dr. Krank
Shaun Fleming...Leonard Helperman
Debra Jo Rupp...Voice of Mrs. Helperman
David Ogden Stiers...Voice of Jolly
Jerry Stiller...Voice of Pretty Boy
A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director Timothy Bjorklund. Producer Stephen Swofford. Creators/executive producers Gary Baseman and Bill & Cheri Steinkellner. Screenplay Bill & Cheri Steinkellner. Art director Gary Baseman. Voice casting & dialogue director Jamie Thomason. Original underscore composed and conducted by Stephen James Taylor. Songs by Randy Petersen, Kevin Quinn, Cheri Steinkellner, Brian Woodbury, Peer Lurye. Supervising film editor. Running time: 1 hour, 14 minutes.