[Screen It]

(2004) (voices of Nathan Lane, Kelsey Grammer) (PG)

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Children's Animated: A boy's talking dog yearns to have a mad scientist turn him into a human boy.
Leonard Helperman (voice of SHAUN FLEMING) and Spot (voice of NATHAN LANE) are the best of friends, as they should be since Spot is Leonard's faithful canine companion. The only difference is that Leonard and his teacher mom, Mary Lou (voice of DEBRA JO RUPP), can understand him, as can fellow pets Pretty Boy (voice of JERRY STILLER), a gruff bird, and Jolly (voice of DAVID OGDEN STIERS), a soap opera loving cat.

Yet, Spot yearns to be a human boy, just like Pinocchio. He thinks he has a chance of obtaining his wish when he hears about a mad scientist, Dr. Ivan Krank (voice of KELSEY GRAMMER), who's experimenting with turning everyday animals into humans.

The only problem is that Krank - the crazy uncle of Leonard's classmate, Ian (voice of ROB PAULSEN) - lives in Florida, thousands of miles away. Fortunately for Spot, Principal Crosby Strickler (voice of WALLACE SHAWN) has nominated Mary Lou for a teacher of the year award and she and Leonard have just left for the Sunshine State ceremony.

With pet sitter Mrs. Boogin (voice of ESTELLE HARRIS) watching after Pretty Boy and Jolly, Spot concocts a wild story to convince Mary Lou to let him join them on their trip. Once in Florida, he meets Krank and some of his previous but not altogether successful experiments including Dennis (voice of PAUL REUBENS), the alligator boy, and half-girl, half mosquito Adele (voice of MEGAN MULLALLY).

Despite those failures, Spot has Krank put him through the transformation process. Unfortunately, none of them took into account the difference in dog vs. human years, resulting in Spot becoming the middle-aged Scott.

From that point on, and as Krank tries to recapture Scott/Spot for his own grandeur, the dog, his fellow pets and his human master try to figure out what to do.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
If there's one given in life, it's that the relationship between a boy and his dog is resilient and nearly unbreakable. That is, until the dog decides he wants to be a human boy. You've probably guessed by now that this isn't your typical Old Yeller story.

Instead, it's "Disney's Teacher's Pet," the big screen adaptation of the Saturday morning TV cartoon of the same name. Not being a regular viewer of such programming, I wasn't even aware of the show that debuted in 2000 and is still running on cable. Accordingly, I must rely on the press notes to state that the film takes up where the show left off with Nathan Lane reprising his role as the voice of the protagonist.

Barely meeting the unstated requirements of what one would consider to be necessary to qualify as a feature length film - it clocks in at a meager 68 minutes including credits - the release feels like such Saturday morning fare. That is, with several full-blown, Broadway style musical numbers, an infectious, smart aleck attitude and enough material to appease kids and adults alike.

None of which is meant to suggest that it's anywhere as good as its longer running TV stable-mate, "The Simpsons." While director Timothy Björklund (making his feature film debut) - who works from a script by Bill & Cheri Steinkellner (ditto) - has obviously taken the irreverent and self-referential route, none of the material is as funny, clever or imaginative as what Bart and company regularly deliver week in and week out.

Beyond the comedy approach, the two do share an identical commodity and that's Kelsey Grammer ("15 Minutes," TV's "Frasier") voicing the villain. Rather than the DeNiro-inspired Sideshow Bob doing the Cape Fear bit, the talented vocal artist supplies the voice of the Frankenstein-inspired Dr. Ivan Krank. The result is about the same, though, with Grammer purposefully chewing up the scenery as the evil scientist.

That's a good thing since the film (purposefully) isn't up to Disney's usual animated feature standards. Björklund and company do give the release a frenetic visual pace that certainly goes a long way toward keeping the viewer interested.

But it's the vocal efforts that really make the film work. The notable likes of David Ogden Stiers ("Lilo & Stitch," "The Majestic"), Paul Reubens ("Blow," "Mystery Men"), Megan Mullally ("Stealing Harvard," TV's "Will & Grace") and Jerry Stiller ("Serving Sara," TV's "Seinfeld") voice the supporting characters, with the latter coming off as rather entertaining in a canary meets Frank Costanza fashion.

It's Lane ("Win a Date with Tad Hamilton," "Nicholas Nickleby"), though, who has the most fun and delivers the best vocal performance as the canine protagonist. While others likely could have generated the proper sound, Lane injects the necessary nuances to make the character work.

The thespian's Broadway experience certainly comes in handy for the film's various musical numbers. While they're not as grandiose as their brethren seen and heard in Disney's biggest animated films from a few years back, they're certainly catchy and fun enough to serve their purpose.

At times, they also have a parody feel to them, especially when certain characters express dismay that their counterparts are obviously about to break into song. That slight breaking of the fourth wall never goes as far as I would have liked. Yet, it and the other humor aimed at older viewers - including some rather funny bits of dialogue - are certainly welcome, especially when one ponders how the film would have played without it.

As far as the overall plot is concerned, the dog wants to be a boy meets mad scientist story offers more than enough material to keep things moving at a rather brisk and almost always engaging clip. Overall, and considering the initial look and stated length of the film, I didn't have high hopes. Thankfully, I was mostly pleasantly surprised by this offering that isn't anything brilliant, but is enjoyable enough for what it's trying to do and be. "Teacher's Pet" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed January 10, 2004 / Posted January 16, 2004

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