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If "Teacher's Pet" Could Only Heel a Little

Benjamin Franklin quite famously said that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. Because he lived well before the invention of the motion picture camera, we can easily forgive him for leaving out the third member of that odious group: television-to-film adaptations. Suns set, empires fall, life begins anew, but TV shows of even the slightest popularity will always be made into feature films. I doubt a single year passes without seeing it occur in some form or another. Later this year, we'll be treated to - or painfully enduring, depending on your POV - a big-screen version of SpongeBob SquarePants, a Nicktoon experiencing Ren and Stimpy-ish popularity right now. For now, we've got a feature-length romp with the show Teacher's Pet.


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Let me preface this by pointing out that I don't watch the show. I doubt I've ever seen more than five consecutive minutes of it, and my understanding of the core concept was cursory at best in entry. The film has a small prologue-ish section in which the basic concept is explained, although it doesn't change the general feeling that much has occurred before the film begins. This is especially apparent in the early classroom scene, which presumes you know that the teacher is the main character's mother and that you know all the goofy idiosyncracies of all the surrounding classmates, not to mention the foregone conclusion that Spot/Scott is some sort of uber-student. ("Teacher's pet". I get it.) Despite that, it was my pleasant surprise to discover that the core conflict of the film (and the series as well, I assume) is actually a pretty good one. The interesting thing to me is not that Spot has a desire to become a boy. It's a standard Pinocchio tale in that respect, which the film is good enough to point out in the very beginning; in fact, the film makes a habit out of abusing its Disney connection by referring to as many Disney films as it can before breakdown. No, the real meat of the core conflict of the story is that Leonard, Spot's owner, is categorically against Spot's desire to be human, and wishes his dog would just be his frickin' dog. I really liked that twist. A lesser show would make it about the "misadventures" of the boy and his dog in their effort to turn the dog human. With this dynamic, there's a serious emotional conflict at work that does not need the input of outside forces. One of these characters will have to settle for less at some point. Furthermore, it brings in issues of the legitimacy of Spot's love (he seems to lie very naturally) and how long Leonard can put up with this dog of his. This is honest writing, and it's rather rare in Saturday-morning fare.

On the other hand, while this beautiful core is explored several times throughout the film, I got the sense that the film's makers were uninterested in just sitting in it. The film isn't even a full 70 minutes long, and yet it still feels terribly overstuffed. Remember what I said about the core conflict being so secure in and of itself that it needed no outside forces to make it work? There are way, way, way too many outside forces in this film. The biggest problem is Dr. Krank, the evil/lunatic/something-or-other scientist whose promise of being able to turn animal to man drives the plot to begin. However, what he ends up providing as well is a transparent villain character whose treatment is unceremonious at best. Krank is not necessary to provide conflict, because there's enough already between Spot and Leonard. Krank's just a place for the film to get to and go from, and the focus on him causes all sorts of unnecessary sequences, between Pretty Boy and Mr. Jolly coming to the rescue for no good reason to the dull comedy stylings of his Dr. Moreau underlings to the scenes of that Ivan kid just acting crazy. The mom/teacher is an additional problem. She is provided with no less than two full subplots of her own that never get anywhere - a teacher contest and a romantic encounter. Both of them might have been interesting had they been given any thought, but they just end up being something to do to pass the time or to provide cover for her character's whereabouts. The romantic encounter is especially ill-done (I won't say with who) because the film pretends to have given her character an emotional investment in the outcome, but it's just utterly forgotten as the film continues on its path. Finally, the really painful thing about watching the film is its storytelling speed. Even with last year's dismal (and frankly, far worse than this) Rugrats Go Wild setting precedents for running over story elements, Teacher's Pet breaks the sound barrier with its pace. We've got characters introduced and then shoved out of sight. We've got climaxes and dialogue scenes that happen in essentially the blink of an eye. We even have our two main characters, trapped by the villain, saved within 30 seconds by a character coming out of left field. Why try and tell stories to kids this way? Are we training them to become computers? Let them absorb a little information, for cryin' out loud!

From a visual standpoint, I have conflicting feelings. On one hand, I was surprised by the ambition of the storyboarding and layout (or put more simply, the cinematography) of the film. There was a lot more talent here than expected for a TV-cartoon-to-film adaptation. On the other hand, I intensely dislike the visual style of the characters. The trend for cartoons with ugly character designs has existed for quite some time (in fact, it's how Klasky-Cuspo makes a living), and I just don't groove with it, for lack of a better term. More importantly, characters like this seem designed for economy's sake, being composed of few lines and even less motion. Put this side-by-side with a show like Rocko's Modern Life, and Rocko looks absolutely lavish in the comparison. So I don't know where I stand on this film visually. I have admiration for the work of the crew behind it, but I can't really like it. Of course, if you like this show's visual style, then you'll probably be extremely pleased with the results.

A few more comments before wrapping it up: not a bad voice cast for a straight-from-the-small-screen variety flick. I know Nathan Lane, David Odgen Stiers, Wallace Shawn, and Jerry Stiller are all from the actual show itself, which is already a pretty impressive line-up. Throwing in Kelsey Grammer, Paul Reubens, and Megan Mullally just sweetens the deal. The songs are not as impressive, though, and add to the problem of wasting what little time the movie is allotted anyway. So what's the overall situation regarding Teacher's Pet? Like many TV-to-film flicks, it commits the crime of being an exceptionally padded single episode. With all of the gunk cut out, this might have made a lean, mean, 22-minute episode, or even a 46-minute "hour-long" special. There's interesting stuff in here, but I don't know if it's really worth sitting through all the other stuff to try and pick at it. It's more than harmless for kids; they may actually get something out of it meaning-wise. Parents, though, are advised to drop them off and do some shopping while you wait.

Two and a half (**1/2) stars out of four (****)


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Jan 17, 2004

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