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Benji: Off the Leash!

(2004)  1/2 Pg
98 min. Mulberry Square Releasing. Director: Joe Camp. Cast: Nick Whitaker, Nate Bynum, Chris Kendrick, Randall Newsome, Duane Stephens.

Good intentions aside, the return of writer-director-producer Joe Camp's "Benji" is terminally boring. "Benji" creator Camp has exactly three things going for him in Benji: Off the Leash!: the faded "Benji" brand-name, the know-how to get personality out of dogs, and the perception of family-friendly entertainment. Though the spectre of domestic abuse overshadows Benji: Off the Leash!, the picture is essentially family-friendly, but I can't remember when I've ever been so bored in a movie, which is saying something. More importantly, the children at the public showing I attended couldn't focus on the movie, either. Other than the odd "awww" or giggle at the cockatoo saying "Butthead," the off-the-leash kids wouldn't sit still for Camp's born-again mutt.

Benji: Off the Leash has very little actual drama or even story to sustain it, despite the threat of Chris Kendrick's evil Terrence Hatchett. Hatchett owns an illegal Mississippi puppy mill and abuses his wife (Christy Summerhays) and son Colby (Nick Whitaker). The indentured Colby reluctantly assists in the breeding operation while trying to help the dogs, especially the outcast mutts, on the sly. Colby saves "Puppy" (the dog who would be Benji), but the dog escapes, befriending a stray dubbed "Lizard Tongue" (played by Shaggy) by two bumbling Animal Control officers named Sheldon (Duane Stephens) and Livingston (Randall Newsome). The maddeningly cyclical plot has law officers trying and failing to nab Hatchett; the dogs walking up to Hatchett or the Animal Control guys, then running away; and extreme close-ups of soulful puppy dog eyes (oh wait, that's not plot). Somewhere in the background, a deus ex machina named Joe Camp (Scott Wilkinson) seeks to cast the new Benji for a major motion picture (the film's endearing musical theme is "It Had to Be You").

Shot on high-definition video and blown-up to 35mm film, Camp's film is a shaggy dog. The basic idea of comparing animal abuse to human abuse has merit, but lacks execution. It's nice that both of the canine leads were rescued from Humane Society shelters, but since Joe Camp is unlikely to show up wherever dogs, women, and children are being abused, the director would have done well to emphasize the importance of self-motivated whistle-blowing. Weak to outright bad acting and rudimentary production values contribute to the film's all-around slackness. The film's best scene nostalgically applies slo-mo and wah-wah pedal to a goofy-looking river-leap stunt for the two dogs; one shot in the sequence flings what appear to be two stuffed animals through the sky. I'm still not sure if Camp was kidding with this bit, but it wasn't boring. Only dog lovers will stick it out to the film's outtake credits. When, in the home stretch, Sheldon declares, "I've had enough of this. I'm going to do something productive," I could only think, "Amen, brother." Perhaps the most accurate comment about Benji: Off the Leash! is "Woof!"

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