It's clearly evident that writer, director Joe Camp has a thing for animals. The fact that the dogs featured in the film were rescued from local humane shelters echoes the film's central theme that animal cruelty and abandonment are inexcusable. An unusually long tongue on one of the dogs garners him the name of Lizard Tongue, reminding us that even the scruffiest looking pets can be cute and loveable.
Those of you who are old enough to have seen the earlier series of Benji movies in the '70s and early '80s might at first be distracted by the fact that the lead canine in Off the Leash neither looks like the original Benji nor is named Benji. But the minor confusion is quickly forgotten as we fall in love with "Puppy's" deep soulful expression and caring deeds. Where many of the humans fall short in their obligations to animal rights, Puppy is sure to be there, reminding us all that dogs have feelings too.
The plot is actually a dark and distressing one fueled by the nastiness of the appropriately named Terrence Hatchett (Christ Kendrick), who runs a back-yard puppy mill in deep Mississippi with no regards for the well being of his product. He overbreeds his females and leaves the less desirables to fend for themselves. But Camp quite often breaks the mean-spiritedness with a couple of subplots involving a pair of bumbling animal control officers (Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens), and a Burl Ives-like neighbor named Zachariah Finch (Neal Barth), who acts as an underground railroad of sorts for wayward animals. It would be quite easy to get your fill on any of these under stories that sometimes come up a bit corny, but Camp artfully keeps things moving along, never overstaying his welcome with any one story.
Nick Whitaker is Colby, the young son of Hatchett who, unlike his father, actually has a heart. Colby spends his time distracting his father long enough to aid the rescue of our canine heroes and heroines. Colby has an ingenious plywood fort in the woods that somewhat resembles the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. Colby's relationship with his mother (Christy Summerhays) brings the story some tenderness as he wonders why she stays with a man who doesn't love her.
Benji: Off the Leash is definitely a message movie. It teeters on the edge of being a heavy-handed call-to-arms for the animal rights activists, but Camp always manages to pull back on the reigns at the right moments, making sure that it never intrudes and never becomes sickeningly one-sided. The best scenes are when the faces of the dogs fill the screen. We can understand exactly what they are thinking without computer-driven moving lips that utter human emotions with the out-of-sync voice of Bruce Willis or Eddie Murphy.
Sometimes the plot becomes a bit too offensive, especially with the over-the-top mean-spiritedness of Hatchett. His character might have played better if he occasionally showed a more caring, human side.
There is plenty of goodness and plenty of hatred to go around. But a good old-fashioned family discussion with your younger viewers will make Benji: Off the Leash a fun and frolicsome adventure for the entire family. Those are hard to find these days.
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