The dogs are cute, the intentions are good, and there’s a refreshing absence of potty humor, but that’s about the best that can be said about the fifth movie about loveable mutt Benji from writer/director Joe Camp.
In past films, Benji rescued children (Benji), triumphed over international dog-nappers (For the Love of Benji), survived in the wilderness (Benji the Hunted) and was even the reincarnation of Chevy Chase (Oh Heavenly Dog). None qualifies as a classic, but a remake of any of those films would have more merit than the script Camp wrote and directed, an uneasy combination of wholesome slapstick with Dickensian bleakness.
Colby (Nick Whitaker) is the stepson of Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), an abusive man who runs a puppy mill in the back yard, forcing his dogs to have puppies he can sell, even when it ruins their health. He mistreats the dogs and he mistreats his wife and son. When his best breeder gives birth to puppies that are not purebred, Hatchett tosses the one that looks different across the room and leaves him to die. Colby rescues him, bringing the puppy’s mother to see him, so that he can nurse.
But when the puppy gets older, Hatchett finds out, and soon the puppy has to fend for himself. He finds a friend, known as “Lizard Tongue,” an expert at escaping from a couple of clumsy dogcatchers. Lizard Tongue also finds a friend, the acerbic but kind-hearted Mr. Finch, who leaves dog food and water out on his porch and who knows how to offer gentle friendship to a dog unused to kindness from humans.
Kids will love the clever and loyal little dogs, especially when they outsmart Hatchett and the dogcatchers. But the movie seems caught in a 1970’s time warp, including a slow motion sequence that harks back to Lee Majors as “The Six Million Dollar Man.” The behind-the-scenes credit sequence footage is more fun than the movie story, which even children may find slow going and amateurish. Some viewers may be upset by Hatchett’s very harsh behavior toward Colby and the dogs, and by Colby’s mother’s failure to protect him, her only explanation: “Two parents are better than one, and we have to eat.” And there is something unsettling about the fact that the movie seems more concerned about the abuse of the animals than about the abuse of Colby and his mother.
Furthermore, the “happy” ending may not feel too happy to some children. Camp’s website has a message about the importance of making movies with genuine family values, but the final message of this film seems to be that fame is better than love and home. The only person likely to find that the happiest of endings is Camp himself, glad to be back at the helm of another Benji movie. Families in search of a happy ending will have to hope that the next Benji movie is “Benji Finds a Better Script.”
Parents should know that the movie has some mild epithets and insults (“jeez,” “why the devil,” “idiot,” “pansy”) and mild peril. There are tense emotional confrontations, and some viewers may be upset by Hatchett’s harshness and insults. Hatchett throws a puppy across the room and leaves him to die. The dogcatchers use a tranquilizer gun. There is discreet reference to putting dogs to sleep (referred to as “you know”) and some discussion of puppy mills and over-breeding. A strength of the movie is the portrayal of African-American characters of integrity and dedication.
Families who see this movie should talk about how both Hatchett and Colby’s mother use the same excuse — that they need to eat. What alternatives do they have? Why did Colby tell the puppy they were both different? They should talk about Mr. Finch’s gentle approach to making friends with Lizard Tongue. What does it mean to say that “it takes a special kind of person to admit he was wrong?” Families might also want to talk about how their community deals with stray dogs and how people, even children, can help prevent abuse of people and animals.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy the other Benji movies, Cats and Dogs, and My Dog Skip.