A doggone hilarious cartoon extravaganza that may fetch even teens and tweeners who tend to avoid animated fare, “Disney’s Teacher’s Pet” virtually bursts at the seams with a supersized abundance of witty wordplay, silly songs and inspired sight gags. Strong response by family audiences is practically a given, considering the dearth of similar product in the megaplex marketplace. But wait, there’s more: Favorable reviews and strong word of mouth could increase tooner’s across-the-board appeal, resulting in a leggy theatrical run and boffo ancillary biz.
Based on an acclaimed Disney-produced TV toon series, warp-speed feature (67 minutes, plus six-minute credit roll) reunites major creative forces behind the award-winning series: illustrator Gary Baseman, scripters Bill and Cheri Steinkellner and director Timothy Bjorklund. Just as important, pic retains Nathan Lane to voice the title character, Spot, a turquoise talking dog who’s determined to become “a real boy,” or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
For the benefit of those who tuned in late, pic begins with premise-establishing prologue: Spot dons eyeglasses and a beanie to assume the role of Scott, a model student who attends fourth grade alongside Leonard Helperman (Shaun Fleming), his nominal master. No one — not even Leonard’s schoolteacher mom (Debra Jo Rupp) — sees through Spot/Scott’s disguise. Which, truth to tell, is a mixed blessing for Leonard, who’d much rather have a playful dog than a competitive classmate.
As Scott, Spot is nothing if not an overachiever: On the final day of class before summer, he earns more academic honors than any human student. But when Leonard and his mother drive off in a borrowed Wentawaygo to attend a national teacher’s conference in Florida, Spot is left behind with two other pets — Pretty Boy (Jerry Stiller), a belligerent canary, and Mr. Jolly (David Ogden Stiers), a fraidy-cat feline — in the care of a near-senile sitter.
Fate moves its huge paw when Spot spots a TV interview with Dr. Ivan Krank (Kelsey Grammer), a ranting-and-raving wacko who claims that, through the modern miracle of DNA manipulation, he can transform any beast into a human.
To be sure, Krank’s first subjects — a mosquito girl (Megan Mullally) and an alligator boy (Paul Reubens) — haven’t been stunning successes. But never mind: Spot is sufficiently encouraged to don his Scott disguise, catch a ride with Leonard and his mother — and make his way to the swampy domain of Krank.
The good news: Krank does indeed manage to effect a miraculous transformation. The bad news: No one takes into account the “dog years” issue. Instead of becoming a real boy, Spot evolves into — well, would you believe, an animated grown-up who looks a lot like Nathan Lane?
Zippily paced and prodigiously inventive, “Teacher’s Pet” spins into dizzying curlicues of breakneck zaniness. Indeed, there’s something almost exhausting — and yet, at the same time, exhilarating — about the pic’s scattershot wisecracks and kaleidoscopic imagery. Anyone who still insists 2-D animation is obsolete should be taken — no, rushed — to this madcap cavalcade.
Credit Baseman and Toon City Animation for an overall visual design that suggests a crazy mix of Tex Avery, Zap Comix, Dr. Seuss and Art Spiegelman, with dashes of exuberant surrealism — singing houses, smiling suns, undulating U.S. maps — and wink-wink references to Disney animated classics. (The opening scene is a sly parody of “Pinocchio,” and images of Mickey Mouse himself often appear as fleeting in-jokes.) Some individual frames are so crammed with comical signage and wacky marginalia that ticket buyers may involuntarily reach for a remote-control pause button.
There’s a surprising amount of subtlety and sophistication along with the snarky and smart-alecky stuff in the snappy script by the Steinkellners, Emmy Award-winning sitcom vets who served as executive producers for “Cheers.” Original songs — too often the worst sort of showstoppers in animated features — are richly amusing and sharply satirical, with many of the more elaborate production numbers playing like perfect-pitch parodies of traditional Broadway musicals. Among the best numbers: “A Whole Bunch of World,” a rapid-fire ode to all 50 states, and “I, Ivan Krank,” a tango-favored ditty sung with zesty hauteur by Grammer.
Vocal performances range from engagingly adept to screamingly funny, with Lane claiming top-dog honors for his ability to switch from sarcastic canine to melancholy mutt without missing a beat. Pic slows a bit in final third, to allow for the inevitable touches of separation-and-reconciliation hokiness. Much to the credit of everyone involved, however, even the sentimental elements are presented with a well-tuned sense of loony-toony playfulness.