Writer-director Joe Camp rarely gets credit as a stylistic pioneer, but maybe he should. Like John Cassavetes, Camp proved how little a director needed in order to make a film. But where Cassavetes relied on unfiltered human emotion, Camp demonstrated that creatively edited scenes of well-groomed trained animals running around could fill out a movie. Camp first tested the formula with 1974's Benji, which made a star of the expressive, kidnapper-thwarting pooch. Benji returned for several sequels, even serving as a vehicle for the disembodied voice of Chevy Chase in Camp's 1980 supernatural mystery Oh, Heavenly Dog! But after 1987's Benji The Hunted, Benji disappeared, joining Lassie and Rin Tin Tin in the happy hunting grounds of semi-retired canine franchise stars.
Now, Camp and a reasonably passable Benji look-alike return in Benji: Off The Leash!, a return-to-basics sequel that seems to have been filmed entirely within a two-block radius in some anonymous Southern town. Doleful newcomer Nick Whitaker stars as the son of unscrupulous dog breeder Chris Kendrick; when Kendrick leaves a certain dog to die, Whitaker secretly raises the mutt, which eventually grows into Benji-dom. Adventures follow when Benji teams up with Shaggy—an unrepentant stray whose disturbingly proportioned tongue prompts others to dub him "Lizard Tongue"—to outwit bumbling dog catchers and bring Kendrick's abusive practices to light.
Apart from one reference to The Terminator, Benji: Off The Leash! could easily have been pulled from a 1970s time capsule. Its use of animals as the only special effects makes it an oddity in the CGI era, as does the unapologetic earnestness and desire to hammer home a positive message about caring for animals and taking stands against bullies. It's clumsy, but also strangely refreshing. To children raised on Spy Kids and SpongeBob SquarePants, it may look as primitive as a daguerreotype, but never underestimate the persuasive powers of a cute animal.