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‘Teacher's Pet’ barely makes grade

Review: Big-screen cartoon has slapdash feel. By John Hartl

Nathan Lane, who is back on Broadway remaking box-office history with “The Producers,” is likely to attract a much larger (and younger) audience this weekend. He’s recreated his television role in a frantic, fitfully funny big-screen adaptation of Disney’s four-year-old cartoon series, “Teacher’s Pet.”

Once more Lane smoothly provides the voice of Spot, a talking, reading, singing-dancing dog who poses as a human and slips into school with his master, Leonard Helperman. Like Pinocchio, Spot wants to be a real boy, and he prays to the Blue Fairy to help him make the transition.

Shaun Flemming is again the voice of Leonard. Indeed, most of the people who worked on the original “Teacher’s Pet” helped create this 68-minute spinoff. Wallace Shawn is back as Principal Strickler, Debra Jo Rupp is Leonard’s schoolteacher mother, and Jerry Stiller and David Ogden Stiers play the family’s other pets, Pretty Boy and Mr. Jolly.

Timothy Bjorklund, who co-directed the series, makes his solo directing debut with the movie, which was written by Bill and Cherie Steinkellner, who also worked on the series. Yet the film version has little to do with Spot’s adventures in school.

It’s more like a sequel in which these characters take to the road, with mom driving Leonard to Florida, where she’ll compete in a “Teacher of the Year” contest. Spot hitches a ride with them and they take a wildly roundabout route (through New York and past the Space Needle) to Florida, where the sun literally starts shining when you cross the state line.

Doggy daddy
Everyone has their reasons for the trip. Leonard, a fourth-grader who thinks Spot’s wishes are “against nature,” just wants to play with his dog on the beach. Mom is determined to win her prize. And Spot is just as determined to track down Dr. Crank (Kelsey Grammer), a Moreau-style quack who promises to turn dumb animals into dumb humans.

Obviously, they can’t all get what they want. This impasse pushes the three into their most amusing contortions, as they deal with various gender, age and relationship prejudices. What if Dr. Crank transformed Spot into an adult male? What if mom fell for him? Leonard, revolted by the idea of calling Spot “daddy,” takes drastic action to preserve the status quo.

Packed with short-attention-span homages to “White Heat,” the Sistine chapel, “The Sound of Music” and several Disney classics, the movie throws in a “Dumbo”-style stork delivery and briefly visualizes Leonard as Snow White, surrounded by forest creatures. Some of the verbal references sound like Lane ad-libbing. Will the kids understand what he means when he says he’s been “Von Trapped”? 

“Teacher’s Pet” begins with “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the Oscar-winning 1940 song from “Pinocchio,” and ends with “Teacher’s Pet,” the catchy title tune from the smart 1958 Doris Day comedy of the same name. Alas, the songs written for the movie pale in comparison. So does the rest of this slapdash cartoon.

John Hartl is MSNBC.com's film critic