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‘Benji: Off the Leash’

Remember Benji? He’s back. “Benji: Off the Leash,” the character’s fifth motion picture, hit theaters last August and is now available on DVD and VHS. It’s being hailed by families and critics as a solid family film.

“Benji: Off the Leash,” the character’s fifth motion picture, hit theaters last August and is now available on DVD and VHS. It’s being hailed by families and critics as a solid family film.

 

This latest installment from writer-director Joe Camp (who has made all of the Benji films) centers on an unscrupulous dog breeder (Chris Kendrick) who discards a puppy because he’s “different.”

 

That puppy, saved by the breeder’s tender-hearted son (Nick Whitaker), turns out to be Benji. Benji must rescue his mom from the breeder’s compound and help a fellow canine, called Lizard Tongue, avoid the dogcatchers.

 

The two dogcatchers are played for comic relief by Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens. They’re goofballs, not villains. The local sheriff (Nate Bynum) also gets involved when word of the breeder’s tactics gets around town.

 

“Benji: Off the Leash” doesn’t move straight from point A to B in terms of plot; rather, it meanders along and devotes time to some of Benji and Lizard Tongue’s antics. These are sometimes welcomed and sometimes responsible for a sagging storyline. The film is probably about 15 minutes too long in terms of delivering a tight narrative.

 

The performances by the dogs, however, are terrific. Both Benji and Lizard Tongue were found at animal shelters: Benji in Gulfport, Miss., and Lizard Tongue in South Chicago.

 

This Benji, a mixed-breed terrier, is the fourth dog to play the part. In “Off the Leash,” there are no special effects; all the “acting” is real. The acting, of course, is mostly clever editing taken from the patient footage of Camp, an animal lover.

 

Camp and company, who raised money independently after refusing to cede creative control to the studios, shot the movie in high definition digital video for transfer to film. The production values are solid, and the musical score by Anthony Di Lorenzo is especially noteworthy.

 

“Benji: Off the Leash” is really an underdog story. Benji, of course, has to fight the odds initially just to survive, then to save his mother. Colby, the boy who saves Benji, must overcome a harsh and abusive father. Even the bumbling dogcatchers must persevere through their own ineptness to do the right thing.

 

Like “Racing Stripes,” which is currently in theaters, animals are the real stars of this film. Unlike “Racing Stripes,” however, “Benji: Off the Leash” relies on a knowing look, a subtle bark or a wriggled nose—not a digital effect. There’s a place for both types of films.

 

The DVD offers several bonus features, including the theatrical trailer and a brief behind-the-scenes look at the film’s making. Most interesting, however, is the audio commentary (with a unique introduction) featuring Camp, producer Margaret Loesch, composer Anthony Di Lorenzo and editor Dava Whisenant.

 

Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.

 

MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and some mild language.

Director: Joe Camp

Writer: Joe Camp

Cast: Colby: Nick Whitaker; Hatchett: Chris Kendrick; Ozzie: Nate Bynum; Livingston: Randall Newsome; Sheldon: Duane Stephens.

 

The movie’s official Web site is here.

 

Buy the DVD or VHS now from Amazon.com.