REVIEW: Benji: Off the Leash! & into little ones’ hearts

by Phil Boatwright, posted Thursday, August 19, 2004 (14 years ago)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)—“Benji: Off the Leash!” is a wonderful film for little ones, full of adventure yet mild-tempered.

The canine cast is irresistible -- indeed, expect the first question once you leave the theater to be, “Can we get a puppy?” The two main dogs in this film seem to be actually acting; they have great expressions and a smart look that can endear them to even the most cynical moviegoers.

While not in the league of “My Dog Skip,” “Lassie Come Home” or even the original “Benji,” this sequel -- the first Benji film in 16 years and fourth in the series created by Joe Camp -- should satisfy 4- to 10-year-olds. And though adults may be a bit bored with the slapstick antics of the film’s comic sidekicks, I think parents will be pleased at the response of their littlest kids.

The latest Benji -- a 3-year-old female -- is the fourth dog to play the character. The new Benji was adopted in the fall of 2001 from the Humane Society of Southern Mississippi after a nationwide search of animal shelters.

The plot of the new Benji movie: A young boy’s abusive father runs a puppy mill in the backyard. And if a dog isn’t going to make him any money, its fate is a sad one. But his son has compassion for the animals and hides an unwanted puppy in an abandoned shack in the woods. When the canine cutie grows up, it becomes friends with another orphaned pooch. Together they struggle to save her mom from the bad man while trying to avoid a pair of bungling dogcatchers.

Although clean and heartfelt, one element concerned me in the PG movie: The boy’s father is portrayed as unloving, threatening and unrepentant. We later see evidence that he has struck his wife. This may unnerve tots. Mom or dad should be there to reassure their offspring of their love.

A word about Joe Camp, the man behind Benji. Along with writing, producing and directing the Benji movies, Camp spends much of his time working with the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. This black boarding school educates mostly high-risk kids from families below the poverty level, yet sends nearly 100 percent of its graduates to college, often on full scholarship.

Looking at his films and writings, it is clear that his purpose is to inspire those who might stop short of their potential.

Camp’s book, “Benji & Me,” chronicled the difficulties experienced in trying to get the first Benji movie off the ground and instills the faith that anyone can make a difference in this world.


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