February 9, 2018

Blu-Ray Review: BENJI (1974)

Starring Higgins, Tiffany, Patsy Garrett, Cynthia Smith, Allen Fiuzat, Peter Breck, Christopher Connelly, Tom Lester, Mark Slade, Deborah Walley, Frances Bavier, Terry Carter, Herb Vigran. Directed by Joe Camp. (1974/86 min).

Forced to endure this against my will back in the mid-70s, I really wanted to hate Benji.

My parents used to drop my younger sister and I off at the Southgate Quad while they ran errands or took in a hockey game. This time, to my chagrin, they let her pick the movie. She chose Benji, which pissed me off because G-rated movies were stupid kid's stuff and the more grown-up Airport 1975 was playing in the auditorium next door (I was really into disaster flicks).

Speaking of G-rated movies, Benji was kind-of an anomaly when released. In an era when even the mighty Disney had trouble filling theater seats, the G rating was damn-near the kiss of death at the box office. Yet this low-budget, independently-produced film became a massive hit, was re-released several times and spawned sequels well into the 80s. How was this possible? I mean, the dog wasn't even that cute.

But even while stewing in my theater seat and cursing my sister, I grudgingly had to concede Benji was a charming film. Dammit, I actually found myself caring about this mongrel and the people he loves. I'd never willingly admit it, though.

"Hey, you kids! Get the hell off my lawn!"
Unlike other films passing themselves off as family fare at the time, Benji doesn't have a cynical bone in its entire body. Even the so-called plot - bumbling bad guys kidnapping two children - takes a backseat to the titular character's congenial encounters with small-town locals, played by a variety of second-fiddle familiar faces.

Grassroots auteur Joe Camp (who built a film career with this dog) doesn't direct with any remarkable style, yet the film's manipulative power is undeniable. Perhaps that's because there's no question who the star is and Camp simply tells the story through Benji's eyes without trying to be flashy or clever. In an era when family films were defined by buffoonish slapstick or cloying cartoons, Benji's laid-back aesthetic was sort-of refreshing.

Four decades on, Benji undoubtedly looks like a product of its time and the cornball music score dates it even worse. But it's a much better film than I wanted to admit when babysitting my sister all those years ago. It's probably a bit too leisurely-paced for kids raised on CG spectacle, but those who grew up with this scruffy little dog will love the Blu-Ray restoration and vintage featurettes (which were actually TV specials that aired at the height of Benji's popularity).

FEATURETTES: "The Phenomenon of Benji"; "Benji at Work" (Chevy Chase wasn't funny back then either).
AUDIO COMMENTARY - by writer/director/producer Joe Camp and his son, Brandon (who's directing the upcoming remake).
DVD & DIGITAL COPIES (the two featurettes are on the DVD)


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