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Overall Rating

Awesome: 14.29%
Worth A Look: 3.57%
Pretty Bad: 10.71%
Total Crap: 28.57%

3 reviews, 10 user ratings

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Benji: Off the Leash!
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by Erik Childress

"Yes, Critics Have Soft Spots Too"
3 stars

Although we may not want to always admit it, critics have biases when they go see movies. Some are political, styles of filmmaking, hatred of certain people. Others can be personal and sometimes all you need is to catch a critic on the wrong day for a film not to register with them. Thatís because weíre human. Most of us anyway. Hear that publicists Ė keep us happy! My own Achilles Heel is dog movies. Iíve loved them since I was a kid in all shapes and plots and they hit a certain sweet spot once I got my own dog, Gizmo, in 1989. Homeward Bound moved me in 1993. My Dog Skip intensely took my emotions on a ride in 2000. The latest Benji film, Off The Leash, doesnít rank as highly as those but in the interest of full disclosure, Gizmo passed away a month before I saw it and it only took about eight minutes for me to start crying.

The story is your standard suitable viewing for children, with a few applied rough edges that parents may want to talk to them about. The opening credits nearly suggest a documentary approach when an open casting call is announced for a new Benji. This is a tease that wonít doubleback until the final 15 minutes. Instead we start with the humans.

Young Colby (Nick Whitaker) has a lout for a stepdad. Hatchett (Chris Kendrick) runs a dank dogbreeding facility out of his backyard, even though nobody ever seems interested in buying from such a filthy practice. His prize animal has just weathered a new litter, only one of them doesnít share the shiny black coat as his momma. Appropriately nicknamed Puppy, Colby hides the animals in an abandoned house until the big bad dad whisks them back. Puppy is left behind, but Colby finds him a new hideout that heís able to keep secret for over ten months.

Thereís a second dog thatís been abandoned and heís got a tongue that would make Gene Simmons envious. Dubbed Lizard Tongue by the requisite bumbling dogcatchers (Randall Newsome & Duane Stephens), this doggy will soon meet up with Puppy and curry favor from a lonely Santa Claus-looker (Neal Barth) who might be going mad in his own friendly kinda way.

Naturally there isnít much of a plot to Off The Leash, just a series of mini-adventures and obstacles that should keep children enchanted and adults surprised at how quickly its all coming along. Focusing on the adults and their stupid human tricks (mud-falling and dart buttshots) donít win the film any points, but at least its completely poop-free. It gets back to the dogs often enough, communicating in their own special way, getting into trouble and looking for love wherever they can find it.

Director Joe Camp, in his sixth Benji outing (not to mention a TV series, but including the Chevy Chase teaming of Oh Heavenly Dog!) isnít afraid to hit the instant ďawwwwwĒ factor. Do you know anyone who can resist the power of the Puppy Dog Eyes? (Even Shrek 2 joked about it Ė with a cat.) I canít. And there are close-ups, slow pans, fast pans and cutaways with Anthony DiLorenzoís cued emotional score extending the cuteness into dog years that hit my biased heartstrings hard. The traditional slow-mo, fluffy-flappiní doggy run even gets its day in a Butch-and-Sundance moment that may have some recalling a similar moment in Anchorman and almost as silly.

Iím not sure if the mixed message of the film is all in sync with some of the lessons we learn through the dogís eyes. Losing a family to love him to win a shot at being Benji Iím not sure is what Puppy wanted. But young Colby does his best to sell it with a down-on-his-knees ďplease, misterĒ plea that would likely even have Lassie barking at him to shut up. But Benji is way cuter than Lassie and family entertainment can withstand a little corn now and then. Off The Leash is not nearly as adventurous as Benji the Hunted (the series best), but not nearly as grating as See Spot Run or dreadful talking animal monstrosities like Good Boy!

In this moment of time, it was a perfect kind of therapy for someone in need. If I never had a dog, I probably still would have succumbed to a few of the marble eyeballs. The human story canít compete with that of Shiloh or My Dog Skip and Benjiís adventures arenít much more than of the big-worded storybook variety. Itís Benji for Peteís sake (or, at least, a new double) and heís at least three times as expressive as Josh Hartnett or Halle Berry, so give a dog his due and shine that sun where itís supposed to. Take this review for what its worth from a guy with a tape full of Air Bud movies. Go see Off The Leash or visit the Benji foundation ( Iíve got a copy of Soccer Dog 2: European Cup that I canít wait to crack open.

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originally posted: 08/04/04 02:12:41
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User Comments

10/29/04 & to think they trash WHITE CHICKS as anti-white! Every white character in this is a bozo, an abuser, or a victim. 2 stars
8/29/04 Christopher Powell thoughtful, funny, heartwarming family entertainment 5 stars
8/27/04 K Man --no comment-- 1 stars
8/25/04 Pamela Marsen I really wanted to like this, and didn't. What did Mr. Hatchett drop in the water???!!! 2 stars
8/25/04 Sandra Burns I spent as much time watching the kids watch this film that I did watching it myself. When 5 stars
8/22/04 Carol Ball I loved the movie! What breed is the dog that plays Benji's mom? Is she a Havanes? 5 stars
8/20/04 JC Great family film! 5 stars
8/14/04 Mark J Great 4 stars
8/07/04 Benjamin Spacek At least Benji isn't computer-generated. 2 stars
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  20-Aug-2004 (PG)
  DVD: 28-Dec-2004



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