The lovable mutt is back in this made-in-Utah melodrama.
Rated PG for thematic elements and some mild language; 97 minutes.
Now open at area theaters.
"Benji: Off the Leash!" shows what writer/director/producer Joe Camp, who made the first Benji a star in the 1970s, does best: he can draw strong emotional response simply by showing a big-eyed dog on screen.
His talent for working with human actors, or writing dialogue that sounds like it would come out of real people's mouths, is weaker. The result is a family drama, and public-service announcement for your local animal shelter, that is more convincing when the four-legged performers have the screen to themselves.
The lead human is Colby (Nick Whitaker), a 12-year-old Mississippi boy who lives in fear of his father (Chris Kendrick), who is as abusive to Colby and his mom (Christy Summerhays) as he is to the dogs he illegally breeds in his backyard. Colby gets caught tending to the new puppies of Dad's overbred terrier -- and Dad tosses one of them aside to die. Colby continues to tend to that puppy (who grows up to be our Benji) in hiding.
Colby's puppy, called Puppy, makes friends with another mutt, dubbed Lizard Tongue by the bumbling dogcatchers (Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens) on his tail. Puppy and Lizard Tongue plot to free Puppy's mother, while Puppy also devises a way to find Lizard Tongue a new home with a lonely elderly gent (Neal Barth).
Between the dogcatchers' pratfall comedy and the heavyhanded domestic-violence plot, Camp's script may leave viewers emotionally whipsawed if not flat-out bored by the slow pace. The production -- filmed in Payson, Ogden, Kaysville and Salt Lake City -- takes good advantage of Utah's deep talent pool. The local performers, especially Stephens (who sings "It Had to Be You" over the closing credits) and Summerhays, often outshine the cheesy material.
The most consistent thing about "Benji: Off the Leash!" is the cuteness of Benji. (Actually, this is the fourth dog to be called Benji, and she -- yes, she -- was found, like the others were, in an animal shelter.) Camp knows that people at a "Benji" movie want to see the dog, so that's what he gives them.