Benji Off the Leash is undoubtedly the first dog movie ever made that thinks that a happy ending for a boy and his dog is not for the boy to get to keep the dog, but for the dog to go off to Hollywood to make a motion picture. It may also be the first family film in which the happy ending involves the father getting arrested and taken away from his wife and son. On both counts, God willing, it should also be the last.
True, the father, known only as Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), is a swine — an emotionally and physically abusive boor who not only bullies his spiritless wife Claire (Christy Summerhays) and sensitive 14-year-old son Colby (Nick Whitaker), but is also guilty of cruelty to animals, with a brutal puppy-mill operation in his backyard.
In fact, Hatchett is so rotten that at one point Colby asks his mother, "Why do you stay with him? He doesn’t love you."
To this Claire can only offer rationalizations. "Two parents are better than one," she says unconvincingly, adding, "Besides, we have to eat." Claire goes on to speak wistfully of the degree she never finished and the career she never pursued, having believed (wrongly, obviously) that "my place is home with you."
While Claire’s foolish choice to be a stay-at-home mom and consequent lack of financial independence means that divorce is unfortunately out of the question, it also leaves it an open question, when Hatchett is finally arrested, how Claire and Colby will now eat. In this regard it may or may not be comforting to reflect that, realistically, Hatchett’s offenses won’t keep him off the streets long, and perhaps before long this dysfunctional family will be together again.
Aren’t "Benji" movies supposed to be about a cute, shaggy little white terrier running around performing canine heroics? Yes, and thanks to writer-director-producer Joe Camp, the creative force behind all the Benji films, Benji Off the Leash! has two of them. This time out the little rascal has a cute puppy sidekick, whom we meet inexplicably being abandoned on the side of the road. Both Benji and his sidekick, dubbed "Lizard Tongue" by a pair of comic-relief dogcatchers, are both portrayed by dogs who (like the canine stars of all the "Benji" movies) were rescued from animal shelters — an inspirational factoid that may be some consolation to viewers unlucky enough to suffer through this production.
Camp, who financed Off the Leash! independently to avoid studio control, says he’s proud to bring back Benji at a time of diminishing standards in family entertainment. Camp certainly talks the talk: He says parents are "screaming for good and safe entertainment for their kids. Not stupid and safe. Not vacuous and safe. Good solid material that involves kids’ emotions with story and character, and perhaps leaves a residue of something positive. Something more meaningful than memories of someone rolling around in a pile of dog poop."
I’m sure you’ll be edified to learn that when those two buffoonish dogcatchers take a pratfall in a field, that’s good clean mud they’re rolling in, not dog poop. But when the dogcatchers show up in their next scene with inexplicably immaculate uniforms and faces, it’s clear that, despite its independent pedigree, Off the Leash! is as sloppily crafted as any big-studio product from the Hollywood family-film puppy mill.
There was a family film this year starring a pair of animals that nicely exemplified the virtues Camp talks about but woefully fails to deliver. It was called Two Brothers and it sank at cineplexes with hardly a ripple, though it is much better than Off the Leash!
Some families who saw Two Brothers found the tigers’ hard-knocks lives too stressful for young or sensitive children. They had better watch out for Off the Leash!, which opens with Hatchett hurling an adorable puppy across the room, and largely centers on the plight of the puppy’s overbred mother, who spends most of the film in a pitiful state, near death, too sick and dispirited to move.
As Hatchett, Chris Kendrick succeeds in making his character so persuasively unpleasant and overbearing that he not only sucks all conceivable joy out of every moment he’s on the screen, he effectively poisons the rest of the film as well. His character exists in a different, darker film than pretty much everything else in Off the Leash!, from the slapstick antics of the dogcatchers, to a colorfully eccentric old codger who adopts Lizard Tongue, to Benji’s over-the-top heroics.
I call the hero "Benji," though Camp’s latest canine star isn’t actually playing the hero of previous "Benji" movies. In this movie, as in real life, "Benji" is not the name of a real dog, but of a film series about a fictional dog. The hero of Off the Leash! isn’t the Benji, but a nameless dog who, in the end of the story, gets cast as Benji in an upcoming movie.
This real-world setup makes a jarring contrast with the pooch’s clearly super-canine intelligence and skills, which are of the caliber found only in movie dogs like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin. Even before getting cast in the film, Benji-to-be is a wonder dog — a one-dog humane society, rescuing abused animals, placing other strays in good homes, and much much more.
This dog is so smart, not only can he rescue a puppy from two dogcatchers with a tranquilizer gun, later he knows to turn to those same dogcatchers for help when a sick animal he’s rescued needs attention. A dog that smart, why should he be playing a fictional dog hero? Isn’t that kind of like getting a real super hero to star in a comic-book movie? Why not just make a documentary about him instead? Why waste this kind of talent in Hollywood, when he could be making the world a better place?
Those questions may be moot, but here’s one that isn’t: Why, in the end, does Off the Leash! conclude that Benji-to-be would be happier and better off working in Hollywood than in a loving home with the boy who raised him from a pup and saved his life? Colby clearly loves the dog and wants to keep him — yet, in a stunningly phony climactic scene, he tells a Hollywood producer that the dog "has had a hard life" and "deserves something special," and that he should have "a chance to be a star."
First came Hidalgo and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, celebrating the bond between horses and humans by telling us that what our horses really want is to be wild and free. Now here is Benji Off the Leash! telling us that a dog would rather star in a movie than belong to a boy. Poor Lassie, wasting the best years of her life with Timmy when she could have been in pictures.
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.
Lassie is a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world, that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals.
If Snow Dogs is a fairly typical example of the conventional Hollywood idea of a live-action family film, Eight Below is a typical example of a new trend in family films that includes National Treasure, Hidalgo, Two Brothers, Fantastic Four and The Legend of Zorro. This is a good thing, but not yet good enough.
Faithfully adapted from the popular Newbery Honor novel by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is a good family film frequently verging on being an excellent one, and is quite a bit better than the dog-movie clichés suggested by the trailers.
"It’s not just a dog story," writes Annie Dingus in Texas Monthly, "it’s a rite of passage for American children." She is right. "Who saw Old Yeller?" Bill Murray asks a bunch of American soldiers in Stripes, trying to define our national spirit. "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure. I cried my eyes out!" And on NBC’s "Friends," ditsy Phoebe had a sudden unpleasant revelation as she realized that all her life her parents had always turned off the film before the climax, sparing her the film’s heartbreak — but also its life-affirming wisdom.
The obstacle to this duty, of course, is that Joe’s father Sam (Donald Crisp) is eventually forced out of financial necessity to sell Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). However, Lassie twice escapes from the the duke’s disagreeable handler Hynes (J. Patrick O’Malley) in order to keep her appointment with Joe, and eventually the duke takes Lassie to an estate in Scotland, over a thousand miles from her home.
Annaud’s skill and subtlety elevate what is essentially a simple, fable-like throwback to the sort of live-action feature Disney used to make in the 1950s.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.