Benji is back, which is good news for youngsters and pet-loving families. Film lovers perhaps should steer clear, however, as hokey melodrama and sloppy comedy fill the gaps between neat dog tricks.
This is the fourth film to feature Joe Camp’s beloved canine creation, which doesn’t count the TV specials and product licensing that have grossed more than $230 million. No stupid pet trick there. The original “Benji” movie came out in 1974, the year of “Chinatown,” “The Godfather II” and “Harry and Tonto.” Audiences have changed a mite since then, so it’s more than doubtful that the new film will add much to the previous bounty. Perhaps mindful that “Benji Off the Leash!” is more likely to appeal to rural and regional audiences than the earlier pictures, Camp is rolling this one out in a regionally platformed release.
A thin plot, stretched considerably, mostly serves as an excuse to get Benji and his canine cohorts to emote, escape from dogcatchers and perform other physical action. There is a central human family whose 14-year-old son, Colby (Nick Whitaker), and mom (Christy Summerhays) are good people and love animals. But an abusive dad (Chris Kendrick) is a monster: He breeds dogs but doesn’t care a bit for animals and isn’t too fond of people, either.
The folks in a rural Mississippi community are on to him, but for the most part the dogs must rescue themselves and outsmart the humans in order to survive the evil dog breeder.
The new Benji, a mixed-breed terrier, was adopted from a South Mississippi animal shelter. He is a lively, well-trained dog and has those big eyes audiences adore. Other top canines are Shaggy, who plays Lizard Tongue, Benji’s helpmate and quite possibly his dad, and Ginger, who plays Benji’s sad-eyed, abused mom.
Two key notations on the end credit roll boast that no CG special effects or “phony animatronic computer-operated animals” were used. What you see is all dog. The human actors could have used some help, though. Camp asks his actors to perform way too broadly, especially Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens as a pair of hapless dogcatchers.
Tech credits are solid, with a special tip of the hat to animal trainers Genny Kerns and Roger Schumacher.