In many ways, Disney’s Teacher’s Pet represents the best a hand-drawn children’s movie can hope for in the post-CGI age. It’s smart and character-rich, and the size of its musical/conceptual ambitions belies its small-screen origins. And yet there’s something wearily adult in its aggressively referential cleverness, which seems aimed more at self-congratulating parents than unself-conscious children.
The TV series (an Emmy-winning kiddie hit on ABC) centers on Spot/Scott, a refined canine who dresses up like a boy, speaks and sings with the voice of Nathan Lane, and generally repudiates his dogness, much to the dismay of his human owner, Leonard (Shaun Fleming). For the film, animator Gary Baseman (whose Fleischer-esque ‘toons have appeared in many magazines) and writer-producers Bill and Cheri Steinkellner have upped the ante: Spot, with help from a reluctant Leonard, seeks out a mad Florida scientist (Kelsey Grammer) who’ll make him a real, post-op boy. Naturally, something goes wrong – something that may have serious psychosexual resonances for older viewers. (Suffice it to say, Baseman’s artistry presents a rather grotesque vision of adulthood.)
There’s solid sitcom wit aplenty (”It’s alive! That’s a good start!”) courtesy of the Steinkellners, veterans of ”Cheers.” But the somewhat rococo songs and earthy pop-art animation tread a very fine line between heady and headachy.