Parents, take warning: Let your very little children see "Benji the Hunted" (Metro in Westwood and then citywide Friday) at your own peril. You will never loom as strong, as smart, as all-knowing or even as huggable after they've had a look at li'l Benji in action.
After all, here's a little feller, clawing his way up a rocky mountain face, carrying a cougar kitten in his mouth. Not once. Not twice. Three times. And not a Dynel baby cougar either, but a squishy real one with gentian-violet-milky eyes and a very real squeak of protest. The animal photography is what gives "Benji the Hunted" its greatest appeal for both children and their parents, but the film makers' notion of wild animal behavior is peculiarly suburban and misleading.
That scene comes after Benji runs into the Kodiak bear, but before he tangles with the villainous black timber wolf, and after the predatory eagle has menaced the cougar babies. Or perhaps it's the other way around. Things move pretty fast in animal land.
Fastest of all is Benji himself, a sort of butterscotch-colored blur, practically running his pads off on behalf of his fellow creatures. While tricking wolves into death plunges, dragging branches across a trail or searching out foster mothers for his orphaned cougar babies, Benji has lost not one whisker of his adorability. There isn't a living screen animal actor to touch him, or an animated one either.
There may not be a dad or mom around who can put a glove on him either. Writer-director Joe Camp, who brought us the first "Benji" in 1973, has sort of outdone himself this time in what a swell little dog can understand: everything.
Washed overboard in a choppy sea, with even his real, white-whiskered trainer Frank Inn (a man of Orson Wellesian proportions) despairing to a TV newscaster of his chances, Benji--something of a city dog until now--has to battle his way to shore and survive in the wilderness (the breathtaking Hood River country of Oregon and the Table Mountain area of Washington).
Kids have always understood that Benji stood for loyalty and friendliness. Somehow--in his scruffy, mixed-breed lovability--he's seemed even more accessible than the regal Lassie. But here, as Benji becomes first a foster parent, then a pint-size woodsman with hearing more acute than a cougar's and a human's ability to make tough decisions, film maker Camp may be straining even little children's credulousness.
He may be doing wild animals a disservice too, by assigning them "cute" or "safe" or "dangerous" characteristics. And you might think that the really little members of the audience would have a few things to mull over before going off to sleep--like that shot (amazing as it is) from the baby cougar's-eye view of that black wolf, snarling and pawing at the log where Benji has temporarily stashed them. (The film is rated G, but you might give some of these strong moments a thought for very young children. This beast is a lot more immediate than a fairy-tale wolf.)
Since three-quarters of the movie is without dialogue, its music is crucial. Do not expect lingering, haunting originality, such as Mark Isham's score for "Never Cry Wolf"; this, by Euel and Betty Box, could be poured over flapjacks and still puddle stickily on your plate.
The superbly trained Benji, of course, is cheerful, inventive and indomitable--even when he's being forced to climb sheer cliffs, a baby cougar dangling from his mouth, with rocks raining down on those little golden paws. And lest you worry that if the first "Benji" movie was 1973, this must be something of a struggle for a doggy equivalent of at least a 107-year-old, this is actually son of Benji and a true chip off the old talent.
But Benji, pssst, make a deal for your next movie: Don't do any action your trainers don't do first.