Teacher’s Pet (2004)

2004, Disney. Directed by Timothy Bjorklund. Voices: Nathan Lane, Shaun Flemming, Debra Jo Rupp, Kelsey Grammer. Animated.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? -1
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?A-I

Content advisory: Pervasive secret-keeping from and lying to adults by a boy and his dog; mild cartoon menace and suspense that could be frightening to very small children.

Note: This review was written by a guest critic.

By Jimmy Akin

Teacher’s Pet is the story of a boy and his dog. It’s not the usual boy and his dog story, though. In this case, the dog wants to be a boy. And in this movie, he gets his wish.

The dog is named Spot (Nathan Lane), and he has desired to be a boy for so long that he has crafted a secret identity for himself. Wearing human clothes and using the name Scott Leadready II, he attends school and is the star pupil in the same class as his master, a boy named Leonard (Shaun Flemming). The teacher of their fourth grade class is Leonard’s mom, Mrs. Helperman (Debra Jo Rupp), so Spot is both literally and figuratively the Teacher’s Pet.

The movie is based on a cartoon series airing on the Disney Channel. The series is not in production. It ran from 2000 to 2002, and apparently was popular enough at the time that Disney felt it was worth beginning and completing a feature film based on it. The early cancellation of the series, as well as the failure of the film at the box office, suggests that Disney may have been wrong about this.

Like most TV-to-film adaptations, this one tries to raise the stakes on what viewers saw on the small screen. In the series, Spot was merely able to pretend to be a human, but in the film he gets the chance — via the mechanical DNA machinations of a mad scientist (Kelsey Grammer) — to become the real McCoy. Spot does indeed become human, though there is a twist that he did not anticipate. Many in the audience will not see it coming, either.

For those who are not fans of the series, the film is a little difficult to get into. The characters are so plot and joke driven that we get little sense of their personalities before we are thrown into a whirlwind of events.

The animation also is likely to be off-putting for many. Though the characters and backgrounds have the texturing that we would expect in a big screen animated feature (unlike Nickelodeon’s disastrous Hey Arnold! The Movie), many will find the character design weird and even a little ugly. This is a trend that started a number of years ago in TV animation. Quirky character design hasn’t stopped some franchises — like Rugrats — from going on to success, but it can cause newcomers (think: parents) some discomfort as their eyes adjust to looking at characters designed to be less than pleasing to the eye.

To be fair, there are interesting aspects to the animation in Teacher’s Pet. In many ways, it is a throwback to the kind of animation that was done in the 1930s (think: Betty Boop or Felix the Cat), when cartoons really got off the ground. The creators of this film are using 1930s animation as their inspiration, and they’ve produced a work that shows it, complete with singing houses and fire hydrants. Once I recognized this, I was able to sit back and appreciate the animation more as the filmmakers intended.

Did I mention song?

Yes, like many 1930s cartoons (when talkies were still new and musicals all the rage), this film has a good deal of singing in it. It also seems to come off more naturally than the singing does in most Disney features. Instead of trying to build the audience up to an emotional point where the characters bursting into song seems reasonable (a classic problem for both animated and live-action musicals), the characters in Teacher’s Pet simply and unashamedly launch into song. In an already quirky environment, it works.

It also leads to one of the movie’s cute lines: Scott/Spot turns to the camera and says, "What is it with this family and singing? I’m feeling Von Trapp-ed!"

The a lot more humor in the film as well. Lots of clever wordplay and sight gags. Refreshingly, there is little of the crude humor that films many children’s films these days. Overall, I find myself positive on the film, but only barely. I have significant reservations.

One is the moral content of the film. Though it’s quite clean in many respects, there is an awful lot of lying in the film. Leonard both knows and actively lies to keep Spot’s secret identity secret, including from his mother. Though this is non-malicious lying required by the film’s premise, it still shows a child repeatedly lying to keep a secret from his parents, and without censure from the filmmakers. That’s a bad example for children in the audience.

Some may wonder how this film fits in with Disney’s politically correct agenda. As one would expect per the Disney formula, the family in the film is fatherless. And then there’s the fact that Spot/Scott has a severe case of… um… "identity confusion," of feeling trapped in one body when he wants to be in another. I wouldn’t remotely put it past the folks at Disney to not include that as a subliminal message for children in the audience. In fact, it might be why they were willing to produce a film based on a TV series lacking in popularity.

Fortunately, I suspect messages of that sort simply do not tend to have the effect on children that filmmakers intend. And in the end, Spot is reconciled to his identity as a dog. The movie ends up being quite firm about the fact that the natural order of things needs to be maintained. As the film tells us, "a boy needs his dog."

Tags: Animation, Family

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