U.S. Release Date: August 20, 2004
Distributor: Mulberry Square
Running Time: 1 hour and 37 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)

Wag the Dogs
by Scott Holleran

The silver screen's most popular pooch since Lassie comes home to Hollywood in Joe Camp's Benji Off the Leash. Featuring the best aspects of the original Benji franchise, impeccably trained animals and the benevolence of a child and his dog, Benji's return is something of a triumph.

This low-budget flick, which Camp wrote, produced and directed, is being released on Camp's dime because, he claims, major studios tried to turn his beloved Benji into something about Mary. Given the garbage offered for today's kids, it's entirely plausible and, it's too bad; with an astute sense of children, animals and that which bonds them, Camp has made Benji a huge success. Whatever its flaws—which include poor editing and acting—Benji Off the Leash is still better than the piles of poop playing in front of most kids.

Benji's set-up is simple. Teen-ager Colby's tyrannical father is breeding puppies in a Mississippi town. From the first scene, it's apparent that Dad (Chris Kendrick) treats the family as he treats animals—with cruelty. That doesn't stop Colby (an appealing performance by Nick Whitaker) from favoring a mutt who has been nursing on Dad's top purebred. Trouble ensues when Colby defies his father and takes care of the little fella, housing him in a secret hideaway that's built like Fort Knox for kids.

Another abandoned mutt enters the picture, and the pair of scamps tries to dodge half of Mississippi to save their hides. The dogs' dispositions are distinctive—Colby's mutt is a sad-eyed pup while the scruffy one is mischief on four paws—and, though Colby vanishes and the plot drags, they make Benji worth watching.

This is old-fashioned fun—it feels like the first kiddie flick in years that earns its laughs without body functions—including a suspenseful rescue, a howler of a doggy jump and a neat trick by Colby's cockatoo, courtesy of bird trainer Steve Chindgren. Subplots converge to express the idea that people, including those in authority, are good. Benji is not one of those heavy-handed animal pictures that make humanity out to be bad. Anthony DiLorenzo's sentimental score enhances Benji's poignant sense of justice.

The Mississippi town—a lonely old man, an observant policeman, a steely animal shelter director—unites against a bully, offering a view of man as virtuous and even those weaned on Shrek might shed a tear or break a smile. Young kids will howl at the dogcatching duo's antics.

Benji Off the Leash works best when working those adorable dogs. Though it's hard to tell which of the pair is Benji—Benji's identity plays into the plot's surprise—Camp and his animal trainers, Roger Schumacher and Genny Kerns, have created a couple of the cutest tail-waggers and a happy, tender story for children—proving that, even without big bucks, puppy love still ought to be in pictures.

DVD Notes
Benji Off the Leash! gets an upgrade on DVD from Good Times, with a behind the scenes feature and a relaxed and informative conversation with Benji creator Joe Camp among others. The DVD—safe for kids, fun for dog lovers and a must-have for Benji fans—includes the theatrical trailer, a printed pet owner's guide from the Humane Society and Benji screensavers and computer icons.

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