After the dust settled, the original Benji (1974) made nearly $40 million in domestic sales—a large haul for an independent production, even by today's standards. The Benji sequels—in theaters and on TV—were also produced independently. And now, staying true to his independent roots, Joe Camp, creator of the Benji franchise, has written, produced, and directed Benji: Off the Leash!, a new dog adventure that reiterates Camp's unshakable commitment to family entertainment. While the film—the first new Benji movie in almost two decades—won't necessarily bring in mobs of older teens or young adults, parents now have another fun and fairly safe film to watch with their kids.

And, seriously, who can resist Benji's big brown eyes?

Colby (Nick Whitaker) and Benji, showin' some luv

Colby (Nick Whitaker) and Benji, showin' some luv

Since Camp found the first Benji at an animal shelter (which subsequently prompted over one million animal adoptions), he decided to find his new star at a shelter as well. He finally found her—yes, this Benji's a her)—in a small Mississippi town, and she's a beauty. Another finalist named Shaggy, from Chicago, had such a rambunctious personality that Camp couldn't help but create a part in the film for him, too. With his two animal leads in place, Camp then rounded out his cast with human actors from Utah, where the film was shot.

Off the Leash! follows the traditional Benji formula: persistent hero dog saves the day, person(s), and/or animal(s). This version brings a slight twist to this age-old story: As the opening credits fade in and out, actors in the form of newscasters from around the U.S. discuss Joe Camp's search for the newest Benji. While Camp incorporates the nationwide dog hunt as his backdrop for the film, it's not clear that this premise runs throughout the film—that's it's actually about the search for a new Benji.

Benji and Lizard Tongue are on a mission

Benji and Lizard Tongue are on a mission

In Off the Leash!, young Colby (Nick Whitaker) has a mean-spirited stepfather named Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), an abusive dog breeder and an abusive husband to Colby's mother (Christine Summerhays). Colby wishes his mother would leave Hatchett because, "You don't treat folks you love the way that he treats us." As for the dog aspect of the movie, one of Hatchett's prime breeders, Daisy, gives birth to a mutt that Colby affectionately calls Puppy (who grows up to be, you guessed it, Benji). When Hatchett discovers that Puppy's a mutt, he disowns the pup and leaves him to die in an abandoned house. Colby, however, bonds with the dog and, together, they work through several problems: reuniting Puppy with Daisy, saving the sickly Daisy, and finding peace for Colby and his mom.

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The film offers a couple of subplots, one of which you'll definitely enjoy. Lizard Tongue (played by a dog named Shaggy) gets the boot from his owner's moving car and winds up in a slapstick comedy chase throughout the film. His pursuers, Sheldon (Duane Stephens) and Livingston (Randall Newsome), are Laurel-and-Hardy-esque patrolmen from the animal shelter. Somehow, Lizard Tongue always gets the last laugh, causing the men to do silly things such as fall face-first into mud. And, Lizard Tongue may be one of the most charismatic and funny-looking dogs you've seen in a while.

The hapless dog catchers

The hapless dog catchers

Similar to his other Benji projects, Camp wanted to maintain creative control over Off the Leash! so he could ensure the inclusion of themes important to him. Off the Leash! presents us with themes such as friendship, overcoming obstacles, and good over evil. Within these themes, Camp also presents a deeply spiritual film in the form of difficult situations. Colby and Puppy face several obstacles throughout the movie: domestic violence, animal cruelty, and negligence. Camp doesn't spare us pain, either. The audience feels a deep connection with the victims of violence, and we cheer on the friendship between a boy and his dog. At times, it may seem that Off the Leash! can't be a "Christian film" because of its audacity to display real people and to confront violent behavior. But, that's what Camp's about—his faith completely informs his films, and his compassion for those in trouble is quite evident.

While many aspects of this film work, the movie lacks some creativity. The first Benji was original in its own right. Certainly, audiences had enjoyed Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and Old Yeller, but Camp's faith commitment brought a unique aspect to his work. Since Camp has created several Benji "sequels," it's fair to say that each new sequel needs to be a new creation. Instead, we get the same Benji formula as discussed previously. That formula still works for kids and perhaps their parents, but Camp's reach won't extend much farther.

Talk About It

   Discussion starters
  1. Benji has always overcome obstacles. In this film, how did he overcome problems? What can we learn from his persistence?

  2. The Benji movies include difficult issues?a kidnapping in the original, and an abusive household here. Why do you think director Joe Camp includes these things in his movies?

  3. Sometimes, Colby disobeys his stepfather. Are Colby's actions right or wrong? Should we always obey authority (see Romans 13)? What would you have done if you were in Colby's shoes? What options would you have?

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The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Benji: Off the Leash! is a family-friendly film. The word "butthead" comes up a couple of times, but other than that, it's quite innocuous.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 08/26/04

"Parents now have another fun and fairly safe film to watch with their kids," says Mary Lasse (Christianity Today Movies) in her review of Benji: Off the Leash!The film, she says, "presents us with themes such as friendship, overcoming obstacles, and good over evil. Within these themes, [director Joe] Camp also presents a deeply spiritual film in the form of difficult situations."

In Benji Off the Leash, the familiar, fluffy canine befriends the son of a mean, menacing villain who's guilty of domestic abuse and running a cruel "puppy mill." Benji's famous heroism arrives just in time to bring this wickedness to an end.

Adam R. Holz (Plugged In) says, "Benji works because of its well-paced storytelling. Nearing the credits, I found that I actually cared about Benji and his friends. [It] 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."

But the film meets some harsh challenges from Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films), who gives the film a "D" grade and calls it "the limpest, dodgiest family film since Kangaroo Jack. I applaud Joe Camp's principles. I deplore his execution. He is right that families deserve better than 'vacuous and safe' pap. Vacuous and unsafe is not a step in the right direction."

Greydanus takes issue with the film's allegedly "happy ending," which "involves the father getting arrested and taken away from his wife and son." He also points out a scene in which dog catchers fall into the mud and then, moments later, appear perfectly clean. "Off the Leash! is as sloppily crafted as any big-studio product from the Hollywood family-film puppy mill."

Lacy Mical Callahan (Christian Spotlight) calls Off the Leash! a "poorly executed attempt. There are many slow spots throughout the film, several scenes that are repetitive, and only a few laughs. I heard two children from different families asking, 'Is it almost over?'"

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Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) says, "These dogs … are so expressive it appears as though they communicate both emotion and thought. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for their human costars who give us one-dimensional and completely unbelievable characterizations. This may be acceptable in a children's movie, but Camp has tried to insert some pretty mature thematic elements into his film—elements such as domestic violence or illegal puppy mills—which deserve better handling. The movie works best when the humans aren't on the screen and we can just follow the antics of the four-footed stars."

Meanwhile, about most mainstream critics are sending this movie to the doghouse.

Benji: Off the Leash!
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)
Directed By
Joe Camp
Run Time
1 hour 37 minutes
Nick Whitaker, Chris Kendrick, Nate Bynum
Theatre Release
August 20, 2004 by Mulberry Square Releasing
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