`Benji Off the Leash' a doggie treat for people of all ages

August 20, 2004|By Philip Wuntch | Philip Wuntch,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Benji Off the Leash! is no one-trick-pony. The film should win audiences of all ages and defrost even the most hardened canine-phobe. The movie and the mutt are that good.

Movies targeted for family trade often seem designed by committees hoping to lure all demographics. Happily, Benji Off the Leash! attains purity in every sense of the word. Unlike many films of any genre, it reflects a unified vision. Joe Camp, the producer, director and screenwriter for Benji, has not stooped to conquer.

In direction, story construction, camerawork and performances both human and canine, Benji Off the Leash! is the best of the Benji canon. Its two-legged hero is Colby, a stalwart youngster who loves dogs. Its two-legged villain is Colby's harsh father. He runs an illegal dog mill and mistreats all beings.

Colby and Benji have parallel plights, dealing with the rescue of loved ones and strong maternal bonds.

Benji Off the Leash! has serious undercurrents, but it never turns grim. The film's canine comic foil is a character named Lizard Tongue, whom Benji befriends (then probably wonders if making friends with the rascal was a wise move). Two goofy dogcatchers and one eccentric recluse provide human comedy.

Camp films the canine scenes from the dogs' perspectives, and the desire to reach out and touch is irresistible. Benji interacts gamely with Lizard Tongue, a chatty parrot named Merlin and even a cow. Don Reddy's cinematography exquisitely captures each moment.

Two-legged stars also fare well. Nick Whitaker has the essential soulfulness for Colby, while Duane Stephens has some hilarious bits as the goofier of the two dogcatchers. Stephens also sings a lilting "It Had to Be You" over the closing credits. Neal Barth relishes each moment as town eccentric Zacharia Finch, fond of improvising quotes from phony sources.

Calling a movie "the best of its kind" often has a condescending tone. In the case of Benji Off the Leash!, no condescension is warranted. This Benji's a beaut, for all ages. Woof.

Benji: Off the Leash!

Starring Nick Whitaker, Duane Stephens and Neal Barth

Directed by Joe Camp

Rated PG (mild language, thematic elements)

Released by Mulberry Square

Time 90 minutes

Sun Score ***1/2

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