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'Benji' offspring wanders far afield

Thirty years after the family-friendly franchise began, 'Benji Off the Leash!' takes it in a preachy direction.

August 20, 2004|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Wagging its tail and eager to please, "Benji Off the Leash!" traipses into theaters today nearly 210 dog years after the first Benji movie made the prodigal pooch a worldwide star. The little dog himself long ago passed into Hollywood heaven, but writer-director Joe Camp has turned the Benji brand into a canine cottage industry of feature films and TV specials.

Unfortunately, the new film does not live up to the low-key charm of the original. It's essentially a long-form public service announcement extolling the virtues of animal adoption and decrying the scourge of unfettered dog breeding. Since the 1974 release of "Benji," Camp may have gotten a lot of mileage out of following an adorable mutt as it goes on its merry way saving lives and cracking international espionage rings, but here he loses sight of what filmgoers found endearing in the first place.

"Benji Off the Leash!" -- an odd title when you consider how rarely the wayward Benji is ever on a leash -- is a shaggy dog story that Samuel Goldwyn (who preferred Western Union for sending a message) would have hated. The basic premise remains the same: The dog is much smarter than the people. Camp, however, spends too much time with the humans and spreads the audience's affection over two dogs, neither of whom hold the screen quite like the animals that played Benji in the first three features.

A lonely boy named Colby Hatchett (Nick Whitaker), whose malicious father (Chris Kendrick) runs a breeding operation out of the family's backyard, raises a mongrel pup on the sly. Puppy, an unwanted offspring of a prize breeder, lives in Colby's fort in the Mississippi woods watched over by a cockatoo named Merlin. Once grown, the dog forms an alliance with another stray, dubbed Lizard Tongue by the bumbling animal control officers, Livingston (Randall Newsome) and Sheldon (Duane Stephens), who spend the movie pursuing the pair. The pursuit leads to Mr. Hatchett's downfall and all's well that ends well.

One of the main rubs of the new film is that there really isn't a "Benji" character until the very end. A framing device is employed wherein a search for a "new Benji" is announced over the opening credits and then is dropped until the film's climax. Once the new Benji is found (a hint: It's either Puppy or Lizard Tongue), the film doubles back on itself, showing production footage from this movie, which ultimately doesn't make a whole lot of sense, though it turns "Off the Leash!" into a prelude to a new Benji movie. Or something like that.

This might not confuse kids, but I spent more than 90 minutes wondering, "Where's Benji?"

*

'Benji Off the Leash!'

MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and some mild language

Times guidelines: Minor canine peril, references to animal and people abuse

Nick Whitaker...Colby

Randall Newsome...Livingston

Duane Stephens...Sheldon

Chris Kendrick...Hatchett

Christy Summerhays...Claire

A Mulberry Square release. Writer-director Joe Camp. Producers Joe Camp, Margaret Loesch. Executive producers Jack and Phoebe Lewis, Jim Ritchie, Sherman Muths Jr., Sherman Muths III, Roy C. Williams. Cinematographer Don Reddy. Editor Dava Whisenant. Costume designer Glenn Ralston. Music Anthony DiLorenzo. Production designer Eric Weiler. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. In general release.

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