Benji: Off the Leash!

Many dogs have played Benji over the years, and “Benji: Off the Leash!” is the fictionalized story of how the current canine got the job. Since the dog was found and adopted in Mississippi, that’s where the film is set, even though it was shot in Utah and even though no one in the film even attempts a Mississippi accent. I suppose they figured kids, whom the movie is meant for, wouldn’t notice or care, but kids don’t write movie reviews, do they?

This is a harmless, simple film, written and directed by Joe Camp, who has guided every Benji endeavor since the beginning, some 30 years ago. He is neither accomplished nor gifted as a filmmaker, and “Off the Leash” frequently seems disjointed, as if scenes have been edited together in random order and as if certain characters have been forgotten from time to time. But at the same time, the movie trots along amiably enough, and Benji’s sad dog eyes and shaggy demeanor are impossible not to adore.

Benji does not have a name for most of the movie; they just call him Puppy, the abandoned mixed-breed offspring of a dog owned by mean dog breeder named Hatchett (Chris Kendrick). Hatchett’s vaguely abused wife (Christy Summerhays) and young son Colby (Nick Whitaker) tiptoe around him while he throws bottles at walls and mistreats the dogs. Puppy is cast out, but Colby secretly cares for him in his tree fort in the woods, nourishing him by sneaking his mother out of her cage and out to the fort so she can nurse him.

Meanwhile, a dog with an exceptionally long tongue is abandoned on a country lane and is soon pursued by bumbling animal control officers (Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens) who frequently fall down and/or bump into each other. Puppy sets about finding a home for Lizard Tongue (as he is called), and then to rescuing his own mother, who is sick but uncared for by Hatchett.

The animals in this film behave the way we like to imagine they do. They solve problems, formulate plans, and hatch schemes, demonstrating more rational thinking skills than the animal control officers do, for example. The acting is generally under control – even the slapstick doesn’t go TOO far overboard – and elicits only mild eye-rolling. The movie is so earnest and sweet that to criticize it harshly would be like kicking a dog, and far be it from me to go there.

C+ (1 hr., 35 min.; PG, they say "butt" a lot.)