Benji: Off the Leash!

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/14/04 13:40:27

"Yes, it's even worse than 'Superbabies.' No kidding."
1 stars (Sucks)

Within one opening scene, we are shown a precocious kid, an entire litter of adorable puppies, one extra-super-adorable mutt, and a villainous father who hates puppies for apparently no reason at all and is not above throwing one across the room. There is no other way to end this scene, then, than with the screen credit “written, produced, and directed by Joe Camp.”

Camp, for those who don’t recognize the name, is the guy behind the “Benji” series. After an unexpected success with the original film, Camp devoted his life to an uber-schmaltzy line of family entertainment, which includes “For the Love of Benji,” “Oh! Heavenly Dog,” “Benji the Hunted,” and now, fifteen years after the last sequel, “Benji Off the Leash!,” a film that was originally titled “Benji Returns: Rags To Riches,” which was lame but at least contained no exclamation points.

Why Benji has returned after so long remains a mystery, but one thing is unquestionably clear: “Off the Leash!” is one of the worst “family movies” made in a long, long time. And I’m including those Dr. Seuss live action messes.

How bad is this film? It’s a Benji movie, and Benji’s not even in it. Except that he is. Allow me to explain. “Off the Leash!” opens with a too-brief series of real-life radio announcements proclaiming a nationwide search for a New Benji. This is quickly forgotten - or rather, it quickly becomes a nagging factor that the movie refuses to do anything with this tiny but seemingly relevant information for the next ninety minutes - and we’re tossed into the story of a boy (Nick Whitaker) whose dad (Chris Kendrick) runs a puppy mill in their backwoods Mississippi backyard, and when he’s not busy beating up his kid and his wife (off camera, although the movie remains too vague on this), he’s abusing the pups. You see, he can’t sell mutts, only purebreds, although we never actually see him sell any dog, and from the look of his kennel and from the attitude of the guy, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to buy from him in the first place.

Anyway. The dad’s prize pooch just cranked out another litter, including one mutt whom the dad attempts to abandon. “But he might die here!” kid shouts. “Who cares?” dad replies. This guy needs a black top hat and a handlebar mustache to twirl. Why is he so evil? The movie’s not interested in that sort of thing; we just need a vague bad guy and fast.

Oh, and here’s something fun for you, a scene that’s disturbing in its throwaway-ness: kid asks mom (Christy Summerhays) why he doesn’t leave dad. “Well, two parents are better than one,” she explains, and it’s impossible to tell if it’s some sad battered wife excuse or if Camp actually thinks that a battered family is better than a broken one. He sure doesn’t come out and advocate divorce; by film’s end (spoiler warning, as if you couldn’t figure it out on your own), the dad is hauled off to jail, which seems like a triumph for the family until you realize that mom and dad will still be married. This movie - and the children who watch it - deserve and demand a scene in which mom wises up and leaves that asspunk of a husband. That she never does sends a scary message to kids: “Well, if your spouse beats you up, just tough it out for the sake of raising a family in a two-parent home. He’ll get arrested on his own, so no need to leave beforehand.” Holy fudge, this movie is vile.

But back to the plot. The kid secretly raises the mutt in his ultra-macked out treehouse (built entirely on his own, in secret, we are told - what the frick?), never bothering to give the dog a name. (He only calls him “Puppy.”) As the year rolls on, Puppy finds a way to escape the treehouse and follow the kid back to the puppy mill, where Puppy sees his mother, who is very sick, although the dad doesn’t care, of course. Puppy spends the rest of the film trying to figure out how to rescue his mommy.

But wait - this is not the entire film. Not even close. There’s another cute mutt, you see, whom we first meet as he’s being tossed out of a car by an unseen driver in the middle of the woods. What is it with Mississippi and people hating dogs? Sheesh.

So this other dog keeps running into two bumbling dog catchers - yes, I said two bumbling dog catchers - whose attempts to catch him are always thwarted by their own repeated clumsiness. That there is a scene in this movie that has one bumbling dog catcher shooting the other bumbling dog catcher in the butt with a tranquilizer dart should tell you the kind of attempted comedy to expect here.

The dog catchers nickname the dog “Lizard Tongue” because he has a long tongue (it looks just mildly long to me, but the characters keep repeating how it’s the longest tongue they’ve ever seen on a dog, so whatever). You expect Lizard Tongue and Puppy to team up for many precious adventures, which they do, many of which are detailed in laughable slo-mo shots accompanied by (and oh, how I wish I were kidding) wacka jawacka action music.

I repeat: wacka jawacka action music.

Two bumbling dog catchers and wacka jawacka action music.

Kill me now.

The apparently all-important Puppy/Lizard Tongue team-up, for whatever bit of reason that was swirling around in Camp’s confused noggin, does not occur for a long, long, long time. In the meantime, we meet a kooky old man who is either quaint or insane, depending on how you look at it, I suppose. This guy - so charmingly offbeat he is actually named “Zacharias Finch” - keeps feeding an unseen stray dog, to whom he shouts into the woods behind his house. So is the mystery stray dog Puppy or Lizard Tongue? The movie’s so sloppily put together that I doubt Camp even cared about answering this question.

So in “Off the Leash!,” we have three or four rotating plotlines, which come and go with an awkward rhythm and little regard to consistency or coherency. And the movie keeps running around itself in circles; what this movie requires is some sprawling cross-country adventure, not two dogs running around the same six places over and over and over and over and over again. (By the way, what’s up with that abandoned house? All its furniture and knick knacks are still in place, if dusty. Did its owners suddenly die and leave the door open for anyone to use? Why has it never been cleaned out? Why hasn’t it been sold, or at least condemned? These are the kinds of questions I ask when I’m trying to avoid watching two bumbling dog catchers banter with each other.)

This is clumsy filmmaking, made to fit with the clumsy writing. How does Benji fit into this? Well, recall that opening sound montage and you’ll realize that one of these dogs will suddenly be dubbed the New Benji. Interesting in a reality-bending kind of way, until you see that this moment is dropped in so suddenly and so crudely that it makes little sense in regards to the plot other than as a cop-out. We seem to be missing at least one explanatory scene here.

We’re missing a whole lot, in fact. “Off the Leash!” is, aside from annoying, brainless, and occasionally repulsive, extremely incoherent. In wanting to cram so much story into so little time, Camp scoots us from point to point without bothering with little things like logical links. Its scenes come and go without any workable pacing, as if we’re watching an unfinished rough cut of the project.

There’s one other thing that stands out about this film, something I can’t shake from my brain, and that’s Joe’s Market. In several scenes (one of the few trips away from our key six settings), Puppy and Lizard Tongue find themselves in an alleyway, where some vague shopkeep disposes of unwanted food (never in a garbage bag, mind you). On the back door hangs a sign, poorly scrawled in marker on scrap cardboard: “Joe’s Market Rear Entrance.” Which means a) we are asked to believe that this is actually how this Joe fellow would decorate his place of business, with scrap cardboard and bad handwriting, and b) Camp was so cheap that he didn’t want to bother making up any professional-looking sign, yet didn’t trust the audience to understand that this guy exiting a building with a tray full of leftover food might be a grocer or restauranteur, so he just said screw it, throw something cheap up there explaining it.

So there you have it. “Benji Off the Leash!” Horrible, loathsome, incompetent, wretched. The worst movie of the year? Undoubtedly. One of the worst family films I have ever seen? Unquestionably. Let’s call the ASPCA and declare audience abuse.

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