Here, There be a Writer

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Benji: A Retrospective

Once upon a time there was a little mongrel named Benji....

Higgins as Benji
Actually, named Higgins, but played the title role in the 1974 movie. I grew up watching this movie over and over again. Probably was in my top 10 movie when I was younger. Interesting to note that out of the 6 movies made from 1974 to 1987, I only ever watched Benji and Oh! Heavenly Dog, the detective comedy starring Chevy Chase. I always thought that Oh! Heavenly Dog was fun and even cute, in retrospect not the best movie ever, but campy enough to warrant a place in my heart. Note: The Cinema Snob does a excellent review of the movie.

But what about Benji?

I recently acquired most of the Benji movies on DVD, and includeing a really nice VHS copy of Benji: The Hunted from my local Salvo Store. I do not have Benji Goes to Marineland or Benji, Zax, and the Alien Prince, yet. This blog will feature commentary on the original movie and the 2004 Benji off the Leash. Future blogs will discuss the other movies and more obscure productions.

I never thought of Benji as anything but a fun movie about a dog when I was growing up, but now when I watch it I feel that the movie is half "a day in the life of" Benji as he visits his friends in a Texas town, followed by a loosely built plot about kidnapping of the main children who are Benji's guardians. This doesn't mean that don't think Benji is a terrible film, but for character development, I feel that there is some lacking. The characters are all very basic, and generalyl really flat. I guess that is because the story is more about Benji, but sometimes it is nice to have developed human characters. Although Benji's acting is pretty spot on and stellar for a canine.

As for the movie, there are a fair number of human character that stand out. The two main kidnappers, Henry and Riley, are well played by (Tom Lester - Eb from Green Acres and Christopher Connelly - Paper Moon with Jodie Foster); and there's Deborah Walley as Linda Sue (she was Gidget in Gidget Goes Hawaiian and her character's name is my Mother's name, incidentally) to be a family friend adds a bit to the basic plot. As for storytelling, there could have been more of it and some subtext, but that's the inner storyteller in me kicking in. Benji is the star and stand out character. Trained by Frank Inn, who has trained Orangey the cat (from Breakfast at Tiffany's and The Diary of Anne Frank) andBenji can look everything from sad to pensive to excited. Higgins played Benji in the original Benji and For the Love of Benji movies, and whose daughter (named Benjean) played Benji in Oh! Heavenly Dog and Benji: the Hunted.

Another fun point are the special guest stars featured that included Francis Bavier as The Lady with the Cat (Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show), Edgar Buchanan as Bill the cafe owner (Petticoat Junction and The Beverly Hillbillies), and Terry Carter as Officer Tuttle (McCloud and Battlestar Gallactia: Saga of a Star World and Second Coming).

Benji's Theme, "I Feel Love", sung by Charlie Rich was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe for Best Theme Song.

Benji was filmed in mostly in McKinney, Texas, but also in a park in Dallas, TX and the City Hall was used for the police station, in Denton, TX. And after having lived in Dallas for a bit I think I remember seeing the park where some of the scenes were filmed, but don't quote me on that. I found this video which shows some of the McKinney location, then and now. You can also see some comparison pictures on Todd Erwin's Blog, 1974 Locations.

Cut to 2004 when Joe Camp, director of the Benji movies returns to the franchise in Benji off the Leash. This little movie has  much more character development and a story that fills up a 90 minute run time than the original, but lacks the simplicity of the dog on camera action. The plot includes a boy whose father runs a puppy mill and is trying to save an ill dog and her puppies from the mill. The runt and mutt of the litter is cast out because she looks like a mongrel and not purebred like the others. The  boy raises the puppy in secret in his secret lair in the woods and then the puppy (dubbed Puppy throughout the movie) tries to rescue his mother from the puppy mill all while befriending another stray named Lizard Tongue, old Zachariah Finch, and two bumbling animal control officers.

Puppy turned Benji
There is clearly more of an attempt at a plot, and although very silly at times, it serves the Benji series well. While I harp on the original for a very simple plot and less than stellar character development, I can look at both the original Benji movie and now Benji Off the Leash with a fondness. There is a charm to them and the dogs are clearly very talented, often emoting more that some human actors.

If you like a like silliness and some camp you should check out the other Benji movies. Most of them are on DVD. Benji: the Hunted is currently only on VHS, and the others I have yet to find copies of any kind. According to the Meet Benji website Benji Goes to Marineland is due out on DVD soon!

Lizard Tongue - Benji Off the Leash
Benji (1974)
For the Love of Benji (1977)
Benji's Very Own Christmas Story (1978 - TV Special)
Oh! Heavenly Dog (1980)
Benji, Zax, and the Alien Prince (1983 - TV Show)
Benji: The Hunted (1987)
Benji Off the Leash (2004)
Benji goes to Marineland (this one maybe be harder to find)
Benji at Work
The Phenomenon of Benji 

Thanks, Dear Reader!

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