The last Benji vehicle, 2004’s Benji: Off The Leash!, introduced the fourth canine to play the lovable mutt since his introduction in 1974’s franchise-launcher. Too much had changed since the previous installment, 1987’s Benji The Hunted, and the quietly released film flopped. The major change in animal vehicles can probably be traced back to the twin success of Babe and (especially) the 1998 remake of Dr. Dolittle, which began normalizing the default expectation that on-screen animals would spend more time talking and farting than performing tricks. Air Bud was silent and stoic; his buddies’ progeny not so much. In that ongoing hellscape (see: the forthcoming Show Dogs, whose trailer promises plenty of canine flatulence), the po-faced Benji: Off The Leash! came off as a dreary anachronism. Benji director-creator Joe Camp redirected his career to running a horse ranch, subsequently producing a series of successful books on equine training.
The franchise is rebooted by his son Brandon in easily the series’ handsomest installment. Benji gets an origin story reintroduction: Separated from his alley-dwelling friends by an evil animal-control agent, he takes to the road as a puppy, aging into maturity in a series of wipe-dissolves before the opening credits are over. Making his way to New Orleans, Benji has a Boy Meets Dog moment, spotting young Carter (Gabriel Bateman) in a series of back-and-forth facial close-ups that’s a competition as to who can look more plaintive. (This edition is, throughout, rightly shameless about accentuating the cute/heartstrings-tugging factor. Get ready for some very sad shots of Benji, wet and adorable in torrential rain.)
Carter has much to worry about. The dog-hating father of the original film is gone. In this version, dad’s prematurely died, leaving Carter and his sister, Frankie (Darby Camp), in the harried care of ambulance-driver mother Whitney (Kiele Sanchez). She worries (in a monologue to her dead spouse’s photo) that she’s “letting them down and screwing them up.” In response, Carter has taken on the traditional family movie duties of a dad, reassuring his sister that he’ll make it to her ballet recital. This is all fairly dreary, in keeping with the franchise’s long-running aversion to comedy and consistent fixation on bad familial vibes. As in the original, the kids want to keep Benji, and the parent isn’t having it. The children’s kidnapping forces the mutt into heroic action, winning his place in the family while serving as a healing agent. The police detective (Jon Arthur) assigned to the case isn’t initially convinced he should follow a dog as his primary lead, but comes around at the proper chiding: “I don’t think that dog was following any kind of protocol. I think he was following his heart.”
Shot in widescreen in New Orleans, this new Benji looks burnished and luxe in comparison with the visibly threadbare original, to which it pays several nods for the fans. (The original kidnappers’ pudding pop is now a can of pudding, which sort of counts as an Easter egg.) It’s a shame that neither this fifth incarnation of Benji nor any of his canine co-stars are credited by name on screen; whatever this Virginia shelter dog’s moniker, he’s a worthy successor. Plenty of situations are provided for Benji to show his stuff: He pulls the covers over mom’s head after she goes to sleep and turns her lamp off, shoves a dumpster up against a fire escape to enable a climb, and opens a locked door by maneuvering a key with his mouth. As ever, there’s also a lot of footage of him trotting from one place to another, the series’ most consistent form of padding.
It’s a bit unusual for a not-explicitly-Christian kid’s film to feature actual prayer (the kidnapped children: “Please God, let us get back home”); the previously absent element of faith is presumably in keeping with Camp senior’s religious beliefs. (As explained in his 2012 book God Only Knows, the success of the original film after it’d been rejected by every Hollywood studio was all part of His plan: “It had to happen that way for you to have ever heard of Benji. And God didn’t leave it up to chance.”) Otherwise, this is family fare of the kind that really isn’t made anymore: stolid, unexcitable, but at least the dogs are actual dogs. Parents who decide to watch Benji with their kids should stick around for the post-credits stinger, a series of outtakes showing repeatedly how hard it is to get two dogs to both hit their mark. The hard, old-fashioned work is still getting done here.