I remember being a kid and enjoying the Benji films. Considering how the original Benji
film released a staggering thirty years ago, and considering how I'm only twenty-four, I'm more familiar
with the later Benji efforts, namely Disney's Benji The Hunted from 1987. So when I heard
director and creator Joe Camp was releasing yet another Benji project, I must admit it was quite a surprise.
I'll admit I barely remember the earlier Benji adventures. The images I recall most, however,
are that of a tired and tattered, adventurous little mutt. Benji: Off The Leash is throwback to
the days when cinema was a lot less vulgar - a time when families could all go to the theaters together
for some good clean entertainment. The film introduces a whole new Benji to a whole new generation of
viewers. But does Benji: Off The Leash succeed as film for both kids and adults alike?
Off The Leash opens with a young boy named Colby taking care of some new pups that his father
is raising as part of his dog-breeding business. The new Benji character is presented as the outcast - the
mutt deemed to be without value (by Colby's father) due to his mixed breed. Colby rescues Benji from doom
and the story unfolds from there. As Colby struggles with his heartless and abusive father, Benji becomes
determined to see his mother set free from the clutches of Colby's father. Along the way, we're introduced to
the highly campy buffoons Sheldon and Livingston who are local Animal Control agents trying to track down
strays. The film loses some credibility with these cheesy, cliche-driven characters. You've seen their
antics before, whether it's Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy, and they're never anywhere near the entertainment
value of such greats. Interestingly enough, Duane Stephens, who plays Sheldon, resembles the late comedian John
Candy in voice and deed so much that it's eerie. Again, unfortunately, Stephens never compares comedically.
The themes that permeate the central story of Benji: Off The Leash are surprisingly heavy. While
many younger kids may not fully grasp the extent of the abusive nature of Colby's father Terrence,
any adult may be surprised that such a dimension to the story is present. It's implied, but never showed, that
Terrence hits his wife and potentially even Colby. He's abusive to them verbally and emotionally to the point
of striking fear in them. The problem with Hatchett being the film's main villain is we're handed the heavy, sad,
and real concept of the dysfunctional family -- right smack-dab in the middle of a children's film. So if good is
to prevail, evil must be stopped, leaving the family broken in the end, resulting in one indeed bittersweet resolution.
The picture Camp paints of Hatchett is an essentially evil one as well. There's more of a cartoonish portrait
of him painted here with no explanation given to why he might be so abusive. Why would Colby's kind and submissive
wife ever marry this guy in the first place? The story is basic, but then again it's merely a vehicle to bring
about the real reason for even making this film - bringing Benji and company to the screen again!
The dogs did an impressive job holding their own in this film as well. While the dog filling in for Benji may have
been a wee bit too shaggy to really pass as Benji, the film did take an imaginative approach to explaining why
Benji looks different. But my wife and I both agreed while watching the two central dogs who looked relatively similar
(with just one considerably more shaggy than the other), we struggled on deciding who was supposed to be Benji.
The name "Benji" wasn't even really mentioned until the film was ending and it just seemed odd given the
movie is about the dog Benji.
Beefs about the themes aside -- while I had trouble getting past the heavy themes, and I worried how kids
would receive it, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the few children in the theater with me and my wife exclaim
how much they loved the movie. There really aren't many films you can take your kids to these days and it's nice
to have Joe Camp sticking his neck out to get some truly decent family entertainment on the silver screen.
It's not a perfect film by any means, but it's got plenty of fun for the kids, and if it does nothing else for
a parent, it should give them peace of mind that they made the right decision in taking them to see Benji
over a lot of the other Hollywood tripe available.
All in all, I wasn't especially enchanted by Benji: Off The Leash, but I am appreciative of it.
The film is a mixed bag of heavy thematic issues and silly comedic elements, but the end result still works
well enough. Some more attention to the script and character development could have really sharpened up this film,
but regardless Benji: Off The Leash is a fine late Summer afternoon escape you can take your kids to without
a shred of guilt.
- John DiBiase
Parental Guide: Brief Summary of Content
Alcohol/Drugs: We see a garbage with empty beer bottles on top. Hatchett
has a couple beers at dinner.
Blood/Gore: Colby's mother has a bruise on her forehead from
where Hatchett had apparently struck her (unseen).
Violence: Mostly comedic violence. In one scene we see
a man toss a dog across the floor (he's okay); it's implied that Hatchett is an abusive father and husband (and to
** Disclaimer: All reviews are based solely on the opinions of the reviewer. Most
reviews are rated on how the reviewer enjoyed the film overall, not on content. However, if the content
really affects the reviewer's opinion of the film, it will definitely affect the reviewer's rating.