Movies Benji: Off The Leash (PG)

Two dogs and a bunch of humans make complete asses of themselves in the not-even-up-to-the-standards-of-a-B-movie, poorly shot, horribly edited, idiotically acted Benji: Off the Leash.

I’m not even sure how to start. Do I bemoan the use of close-ups of dogs’ eyes to convey one dog’s belief that his canine companion has been a loyal friend and a trusted ally and for that should be rewarded by living with a kindly old man? Do I rail against the frequent and nonsensical use of slow mo, resulting in not just one but at least two shots of dogs hurtling through the air and looking quite distressed about this fact? Do I detail the many ways in which the human characters are not only stupider than the dog characters but also less interesting? Do I point out that, among other incongruities of time and space, this story claims to take place in Mississippi but a good chunk of the cast has pronounced Canadian accents?

Maybe I should start this way—Benji: Off the Leash contains quite a bit of that bow-chicka-wow-wow music primarily associated with 1970s porn. In a movie where not even the animals get lucky, why is this necessary?

When the movie isn’t using the rejected score for Debbie Does Dallas, it’s using something that sounds like the rejected score for the Little House on the Prairie television series. That music has the weird effect of painting other aspects of the movie with the Little House brush. Set in a relatively bucolic, somewhat backwoods small town, the movie’s human lead seems like he might play Laura Ingalls’ best friend in a Very Special Episode about domestic abuse. This lucky boy? Colby (Nick Whitaker), who, in the movie’s opening scenes, lovingly tends to a mamma dog and her pups. His brutish father Hackett (Chris Kendrick) shows up and threatens to kill the puppies because they are probably half-breeds and their mother is his prized breeding dog. He decides to take all the black puppies with him but, deciding he looks too mongrel-ish, he tosses the sandy-colored puppy across the floor, making vague threats of undefined harm against his son the whole time.

Colby later sneaks back to rescue the puppy, taking him to his secret hideout, outfitted with a parrot and a series of clever signs, such as “escape hatch” and “perimeter alert,” which are either an obvious and annoying attempt to make the boy precocious or a sign of Colby’s extremely short-term memory. He takes care of the puppy, whom he imaginatively names Puppy, nurturing him into doghood. He must continue to hide the dog from his father, who runs a puppy mill in their back yard and would be upset because his character must perpetually emit bastardness, even when it’s unnecessary. (In one of the movie’s most unintentionally hilarious scenes, Colby points out to his mother that Hackett doesn’t love them and they should just leave. She could work at the market, he says. No, she says, she can’t, for the same reason she couldn’t go to law school like she wanted which is that her place is in the home and sure, the father’s basically a wife- and child-beating schmuck but at least his illegal puppy mill puts food on the table.)

It’s a this point in the movie that a second dog appears, dog ex machina—literally dropped into the movie by a car that speeds away. His purpose seems two-fold—to introduce a how-do-they-even-dress-themselves-they’re-so-stupid pair of animal control officers and to befriend in lots of unimportant ways Puppy. The movie meanders from here on out into and out of plots, inventing characters when it seems necessary, throwing in a little pointless action involving the forever failed attempts of two grown men to catch one little dog.

The deeper we get into this drama (certain to be the first movie-of-the-week on the Lifetime for Canines Channel), the more amazingly absurd the tale becomes. One example: this small-ish town has a fast-talking gossipy radio reporter (radio? What is this, 1949?) who reports on a police officer’s visit to Hackett’s house—not an arrest, an unofficial visit—and then takes listener calls on the topic. To this and so many other scenes in Benji Off the Leash I offer a hearty what-the-F?.

Even more inexplicable than the story and onscreen performances is the film’s actual production. This has all the artistry and command of basic photography skills (such as keeping things in frame and in focus) of the home video of a child’s birthday party.

—Amy Diaz


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