Surely you remember when Benji was Canine Rex, king of all dogsr
No, huhr I can’t blame you. It has been 17 years since the last installment of the franchise, after all. Well, whether you like it or not, Benji is back in the new “Benji: Off the Leash!” Hey, maybe not the world’s greatest title, but at least be glad he isn’t “off the hizzle fo shizzle” or something.
And indeed, this is not particularly a “modernization” of the legend, except insofar as we must be up to at least Benji v4.0 by now. (After all, this is the 30th anniversary of the original “Benji,” and as the equally late Lorne Greene could have assured you, that’s 210 of our years.) Set in placid suburbia, “Off the Leash!” makes absolutely no attempt to stamp itself as a product of the 21st century. We begin with Colby (Nick Whitaker), a boy who I’d guess is supposed to be around 10 years old, but to whom school is nonetheless a distant rumor. In classic fairy tale fashion, Colby lives in misery with an abusive stepfather (Chris Kendrick) and a frightened mother (Christy Summerhays). Evil Stepdad has a whole bunch of dogs in the backyard. He keeps them in cages and breeds them far more often than is healthy. Thankfully, we don’t get to see the latter part, but we do see one of the results: The canine who would be Benji is born to the breeder’s most prized dog. But since he’s white, rather than black like his mom, Evil Stepdad can’t sell him as a “pure breed.” So, over Colby’s objections, Stepdad tosses the dog across the room and then abandons him. That’s the kind of guy he is. (A dog tosser, that is. Any racial subtext is presumably unintentional.)
Colby often seeks refuge in a fort located in the woods outside of his home. He seems to have constructed it out of the husk of an old school bus. It has a few fun gadgets, such as a water wheel to provide drinking water for any critters that happen by. (Unfortunately, the gadgets are abandoned as soon as they’re introduced. I would have liked to see a totally tricked-out fort, just to make the film even more of a kid’s daydream.) Naturally, soon enough, the dog no one wanted shows up at Colby’s rusty schoolbus door.
Turns out that the life of a dog can be pretty… rough. “Rough”r Get itr Kinda sounds like the sound a dog makesr
Fine, be that way. Turns out that the life of a dog can be pretty complex. Ur-Benji makes a friend, a shaggy, affable dog, named Lizardtongue, who puts Gene Simmons to shame. But Lizardtongue has enemies, two bumbling dogcatchers (Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens), and they’re set on corralling one or both of the wandering pups. Lizardtongue also isn’t the sharpest canine in the pound — ruled as much by his stomach as his head — and the lure of the food provided by a kindly old man (Neal Barth) may break up the burgeoning friendship. Meanwhile, all the over breeding has made Mom quite sick, and naturally, our hero would like to be reunited with her. And of course, surrounded by a home life that defines “battered woman’s syndrome,” Colby has mother issues of his own.
So there’s a lot going on, which ensures that the film moves at a good pace and stays interesting. It also strikes a nice balance in terms of tone. If you compare the way children’s movies were 30 years ago to the way they are now, it might seem inconceivable that a film that explicitly attempts to be a throwback to that era could come off anything besides hopelessly dated and saccharine. “Off the Leash!” manages to avoid that, though. In between the realistic-looking, very sick dog and the abusive dad, we are definitely not living in Lollipop Land. It won’t scare your children, and of course, everyone gets their comeuppance in the end. But just as importantly, it won’t insult your children’s intelligence either. Personally, I was glad to see that the film depicted such a significant social issue at all, and that it sought to teach kids why it’s a bad thing. And for slapstick comic relief, you’ve got the dogcatchers. Not that they’re funny, but maybe the kids will laugh. Maybe.
After “animal” flicks like “Garfield: The Movie”, “Cats and Dogs” and “Good Boy!” which mostly consist of computer graphic artists showing off what they can do with pixels, it’s heartwarming to see real animals doing things that animals really can do. When the two dogs get stuck in a garbage can… hey, it might not be something out of the “Die Hard” series, but if you were a dog, that would be a real problem! And if a dog wants to get over a tall fence, that’s going to be quite a process! It was very gratifying to see these realistic “stunts” performed without outside aids. The “acting” coaxed out of the canine leads is also impressive. Lizardtongue and his pal show more chemistry than most “buddy” movies involving humans, going from exuberant excitement to forlorn despair. However, I’d suggest you leave before the ending credits, in which the filmmakers congratulate themselves for the lack of CGI. Part of “keeping it real” is humility, after all.
There’s also a note of self-congratulation in one of the film’s basic plot conceits. Suffice it to say that a young child in 2004 probably won’t understand the significance of being named “Benji,” and the film never really explains why that’s so important.
In the current social climate, there’s no doubt that certain folks will seize on “Benji: Off the Leash!” because “there’s finally a movie to which you can take the whole family.” That’s more of a partisan statement than a true one. There are still many fine family films being made. “Off the Leash!” is a long way away from “Finding Nemo” or “Babe.” It traffics extensively in cliches, with largely cutout characters, and you can’t exactly call it witty. But it beats a failed comedy like “Garfield”, or a gross out-fest like “The Cat In the Hat” that isn’t even suitable for children to see at all. “Off the Leash” takes the idea of making a dog movie for kids seriously, and that’s why it largely succeeds.Rating: B