Benji: Off the Leash!
In 1974, Benji bounded across the big screen and into the hearts of moviegoing families everywhere. Following that debut in Benji, the loyal, mixed-breed terrier continued his adventures in two subsequent features, For the Love of Benji (1977) and Benji the Hunted (1987). Now, after a 17-year hiatus, one of America's favorite canine heroes returns. Benji: Off the Leash! invites a new generation to connect with the lovable ragamuffin.
The film begins with a young boy, Colby, riding his bike through town, casting furtive glances this way and that as he avoids an old green pickup that zigzags across his path. He reaches an old, abandoned house and sprints upstairs to find a beautiful chocolate brown terrier with a litter of all-black pups—except for one light-colored one.
No sooner does Colby arrive than the green truck pulls up, a door slams and angry footfalls sound in the hallway. The boy's father (known appropriately by his last name, Hatchett) explodes through the door. It turns out Colby's dad owns Daisy and her pups, and Colby had been trying to protect her from being over-bred. In the process, she'd mated with a stray, and Hatchett is furious that the resulting puppies are of mixed breed. Not that that'll stop him from passing them off as purebred! All but the light-colored one, of course. He leaves it to fend for itself, despite Colby's copious pleas.
Later that night, Colby sneaks back to the old house, gathers up the puppy and takes it to his secret fort in the woods near his family's Gulfport, Miss., home. In the months that follow, Colby secretly raises the puppy, Benji, to adulthood.
Hatchett, meanwhile, seems determined to breed Daisy to death. So Colby and Benji set about saving her. They get help from a pair of Laurel-and-Hardy-like animal control officers, named Sheldon and Livingston. Along the way, Benji befriends a klutzy mutt dubbed Lizard Tongue, and wins the affection of a compassionate old bachelor named Zacharia Finch.
Benji: Off the Leash! is a (mostly) lighthearted tale of the triumph of kindness over cruelty. It's full of positive lessons about kindness, friendship, courage, perseverance and doing the right thing.
Benji makes it his mission to rescue his mother from Hatchett's clutches, and befriends the somewhat dimwitted Lizard Tongue. Mr. Finch leaves food out, and Benji shares it with Lizard Tongue. When Lizard Tongue knocks over a flower pot on Mr. Finch's porch, Benji gives the other dog a patient, kind look in response. And in a series of smart, self-sacrificial maneuvers, Benji makes sure that Lizard Tongue, a stray, gets adopted into a good home—a home Benji could have had himself.
Mr. Finch is a model of kindness and generosity, too. His genuine affection for the dogs is an emotional high point. He gets food for Benji and always talks to the young man who delivers his groceries. In one touching scene, Finch puts food out for the dogs and waits to see if they'll come. Because they're trapped in a garbage can, Benji and Lizard Tongue can't make it. But Mr. Finch falls asleep in his chair on the porch waiting for them. He's saddened when he wakes at sunrise to discover that his new friends haven't come a callin' in the night.
Colby does everything he can to safeguard Daisy and Benji from Hatchett's wrath. And Claire Hatchett, who cares deeply for her son, steps in to protect him when her husband threatens violence. Claire's commitment to her marriage is admirable, considering how difficult her husband is. When Colby asks, "Why do you stay with him. He doesn't love you," she responds, "Two parents are better than one." (But it's also worth discussing—as a family—when "difficulty" turns into abuse that warrants separation for her safety and Colby's.)
Before Benji becomes friends with Finch, the dog finds groceries that have been left for the elderly man on his front porch. After Benji eats part of a sausage, Mr. Finch says, "Repent and you shall be forgiven. Ask and you shall receive." Sheldon complains about Lizard Tongue, "He's the devil. He's messing with our minds."
Hatchett's always angry, and we eventually learn that he has a history of domestic abuse—which comes as no surprise. When Colby jumps on his Dad's back to try to keep him from getting to Benji, Hatchett throws his son to the ground. Another time, Hatchett threatens Colby, and Claire steps in to protect him. Finally, Hatchett manhandles Colby again, grabbing him and shaking him. Hatchett throws beer bottles that break, and he threatens to kill Benji.
In the slapstick violence category, Livingston accidentally shoots Sheldon in the behind with a tranquilizer dart intended for a dog, the closest thing to edgy humor in the movie.
Crude or Profane Language
No profanity. But parents of younger kids will want to know that Colby's pet parrot calls Hatchett a "butthead." Hatchett says to Colby, "Get your butt out of the truck." Another character says "jeez." And the two animal control officers trade comedic-yet-demeaning barbs, such as this line from Livingston: "Sorry about my associate. He's an idiot."
Drug and Alcohol Content
In several scenes Hatchett holds what looks like a beer bottle in his hand. When a garbage can at the Hatchett home gets knocked over by one of the dogs, we see that it's full of beer bottles. During dinner, Colby asks Hatchett what he's doing when he gets up from the table. "Just getting a beer," his father replies.
Other Negative Elements
Colby disobeys his dad's (harsh) command to go to his room without dinner. Instead, Colby climbs out his window to rescue Benji.
I'd never seen any of the older Benji films before watching this new one. Nevertheless, I was familiar with the iconic dog, and I thought I knew what to expect: a sappy movie in which a lovable canine would try to win me over through his heroism and general adorableness. But as someone who came of age in a post-Star Wars blockbuster world, I was skeptical that such a simple premise could work even mild magic on me.
My expectations were right—and wrong. Benji: Off the Leash! is indeed about the exploits of a remarkable canine. What surprised me, however, was how engaging the tail, er, tale was. In this era of mega-budget epics, the humble virtue of a good story is easy to overlook. Benji works because of its well-paced storytelling. It starts slowly, building tension and adding humor scene by scene. Nearing the credits, I found that I actually cared about Benji and his friends. Doggone it if Benji didn't get to me, almost against my will.
Movies such as this one have become a rare breed. Benji: Off the Leash! unashamedly praises the virtues of friendship, loyalty and sacrifice without wallowing in the bathroom humor and cut-rate crudities that have become commonplace even in so-called "family films" today. And that's no accident. Writer and director Joe Camp says, "Over the past several years there has been a lowering of the bar as to what some folks say is acceptable family entertainment. Violence and potty humor are on the increase. We don't believe all that is necessary when you have a good story, well-told, with strong, emotionally involving characters; and we're excited at the opportunity to raise that bar back up. I'm continually amazed at how many in the industry completely reject the notion that a good story, well-told, with strong emotional involvement will always entertain."
True to his word, Camp has crafted an engaging script that draws disparate subplots together in a satisfying way. Making exception for young or sensitive children, who might be scared by Hatchett's outbursts, this newest Benji movie embodies timeless quality and innocence while at the same time touching on serious subjects that will give thoughtful families lots to talk about.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Nick Whitaker as Colby; Chris Kendrick as Hatchett; Christy Summerhays as Claire; Nate Bynum as Ozzie; Randall Newsome as Livingston; Duane Stephens as Sheldon; Neal Barth as Zacharia Finch
Joe Camp ( )
Mulberry Square Releasing