Benji – Off the Leash!
Production Company: Mulberry Square Productions
Director: Joe Camp
Principles: Nick Whitaker, Randall Newsome, Chris Kendrick
Rating: PG for thematic elements and some mild language
By Gregg Tubbs
(UMCom) -- If you are wondering where all the family movies have been this summer, your wait is over. Benji is back. That spunky, canine hero of several popular films beginning with Benji in 1974 has returned from a 16-year hiatus with a new adventure, Benji – Off the Leash! Those who remember Benji fondly, perhaps from your own childhood, will be glad to hear that the Benji formula hasn’t changed much. The big question is – have we changed too much to enjoy the simple, wholesome charms of Benji? Let’s hope not.
Off the Leash! opens with a clever device, a mock news story about the producer of the Benji movies searching for a dog to star as the next Benji. From there, we go to an abandoned house in a small Mississippi town, where a mother dog is nursing a new litter of pups. All the puppies are black like her except one, a little brown raga-muffin who we come to know simply as “Puppy.” Lovable as he is, Puppy has a rough road ahead because his mother is a rare breed and the prized breeder of Terrence Hatchet. As his name implies, Hatchet is one rough character.
|Benji shows Colby (Nick Whitaker) his appreciation. © Mulberry Square Productions |
Hatchet operates a filthy, overcrowded puppy mill on the edge of town, and he cares nothing for his dogs beyond their ability to turn a profit. That profit depends on turning out only pure-breed puppies – as many and as quickly as possible. He has a total disregard for the health risks of over-breeding his females and complete contempt for a “worthless half-breed mutt” like Puppy.
Puppy is left to fend for himself with help from Hatchet’s stepson Colby who shelters him, sneaks him food and the occasional visit from his mother. As Puppy grows and his mother gets ever sicker from over-breeding, it’s up to him, Colby and the unflappable fellow stray called Lizard Tongue (you’ll see why) to rescue mom and convince the local sheriff to shut down the puppy mill. But how can a boy and two dogs stand up to the intimidating, abusive Hatchet? By the end, we see that this is really a story about heroes – a small and unlikely group of heroes who must lean on each other and find the courage to stand up to a powerful and ruthless foe. Can they do it, and is it possible that one of these hard-luck pups will be chosen to be the new Benji? You can probably guess the answer.
|Sheldon and Livingston (Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens), dogcatchers extraordinaire. © Mulberry Square Productions|
The secret to enjoying this movie is to keep telling yourself it’s a Benji movie. Does it matter that the story is a bit hokey, the comedy is slapstick, the characters are too broad and that the best actors in the film walk on all fours? Of course not. This is a simple movie with an uncomplicated sense of basic, old-fashioned values. Although Benji debuted in the ‘70s, its sensibilities are from an earlier time. No antiheroes or shades of gray here. The villain is truly dastardly, the heroes are virtuous – and in the case of the dogs, lovable. The wicked are punished, and good wins out in the end. For youngsters, this should strike the right, reassuring chord. The movie also is bursting with the joys of youth and the wondrous, magical bond that grows between a person and their pet.
|Benji relaxes for a moment on set director and producer Joe Camp. © Mulberry Square Productions|
The story behind the film is almost as interesting as the film itself. Joe Camp, the creator of Benji, is a Christian filmmaker who has worked for years to secure control of the Benji franchise from Hollywood executives and investors. His belief is that Hollywood has lost faith in his brand of kid-friendly, wholesome entertainment and has steadily lowered its standard on what is considered family entertainment. Off the Leash! was independently financed by small investors and produced entirely outside of the big-budget Hollywood machine, making it a true (pardon the pun) underdog at the box office. That alone might tempt you to support the film, but it can stand on its own. Anyone with a soft spot for a simple story about a boy and his dog featuring good role models and an uncluttered belief that “the right will prevail” will agree that this Benji is indeed a “good boy.”
Gregg Tubbs is a free-lance writer living in Columbia, Md.
This review was developed by UMC.org, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.