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Friday, February 9, 2018

'Benji' BD: Underdog Proves He is the Fast and the Furriest


The Mill Creek Entertainment February 13, 2018 Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Combo Pack release of the 1974 family film classic "Benji" gives men whose significant others shave their legs and/or their faces a chance to be a Valentine's Day hero. This is not to mention allowing parents to score big with their special someones who are too young to shave anything.

This low-budget indie film looking pawtastic in Blu-ray is only the tip of the iceberg. This tale of  a mutt who already has the heart of a small town and goes onto outshine Lassie regarding two kids who have "fallen down a well"  genuinely appeals to anyone from 4 to 90.

Writer-director-producer Joe Camp, who goes on to make several other Benji movies, hits all the right notes with this film debut of this star of the '60s ruralcom "Petticoat Junction." The strongest selling point is the cuteness of the lead and his expressiveness that is obvious to both the people in "the business" and to the general population.

Camp shows further knowledge of psychology by centering "Benji" around a small creature to whom adults refuse to listen even when he has crucial information to convey. Virtually every child and many adults relate to futilely "barking" only to have authority figures ignore them and/or shove them out the door.

Camp demonstrates additional understanding of his audience by populating the cast mostly with stars from '60s and '70s sitcoms.

Patsy Garrett who plays neighbor Mrs. Fowler on the fantasycom "Nanny and the Professor" plays kindly housekeeeper/surrogate mother Mary at the abode with the two moppets where Benji eats breakfast every morning. We also get Frances "Aunt Bea" Bavier as "woman with cat" who has a love-hate relationship with our star, and former Benji (nee Higgins) co-star Edgar "Uncle Joe" Buchanan as a kindly diner owner. Casting against type has Tom "Eb" Lester playing bad guy Riley. Deborah Walley of "The Mothers-In-Law" joins Lester in trading her sweet young thing image to play fellow neer-do-well Linda.

"Benji" opens with the titular former shelter puppy going about his daily business to the accompaniment of the Golden Globe winning and Oscar-nominated song "Benji's theme" sung by country singer Charlie Rich. (A segment in the TV special "The Phenomenon of Benji" that is a DVD extra shows Benji being among those who go up to accept that award.)

The first sign of trouble is when the group of young criminals that includes Riley and Linda breaks into the abandoned home that serves as a large two-story dog house for Benji.

The worlds of Benji collide when the lawbreakers show up with the aforementioned moppets gagged with their hands tied in front of them. This being a G movie results in the kids not looking any worse for wear and not seeming exceptionally frightened.

This discovery prompts Benji to race to the home of the kids to alert their father (Peter Breck of the Western "The Big Valley") and the police about the whereabouts of the children; unlike Lassie, Benji is kicked out of the house. He soon discovers that none of his other human friends are any help.

The film title and this being a '70s kids movie ensure that Benji keeps trying until he succeeds. His next effort proves that his skills apparently include the ability to read a dog-eared note, which he brings back to the crime scene.

This second bite at the Kong is one of the best ones in the film; seeing defeat essentially being ripped from the jaws of victory is a surprising twist that is equally frustrating for the audience and Benji. We also thrill on seeing him overcome staggering odds to finally convince the adults to pay attention to him.

Camp deserves additional credit for avoiding cartoonish cliches regarding the inevitable chase of Benji back to the house where the kidnap victims are being held. There are no comic efforts by large bodies to fit in small places, no knocking pedestrians off their feet, and even a very limited element of an exasperated Benji waiting for the slow and clumsy humans to catch up with him.

Benji being happy with his current existence and even having a love interest whom he meets and courts in an adorable scene creates three possibilities for the mandatory happy ending. Either he returns to his standard routine of visiting his friends every day and spending his nights in his squat, or is adopted by the family whom he reunites and becomes an indoor dog, or his new life falls somewhere in the middle.

"Benji at Work," which then "Eight is Enough" moppet Adam Rich hosts, is another TV special in this two-disc set. While "Phenomenon" is a '70slicious tribute to the popularity of the dog of that century, "Work" focuses on "behind-the-scenes" footage of Benji doing his thing. Mill Creek additionally gives us the four-minute "Benji" trailer complete with audience reactions.

Anyone with questions or comments regarding "Benji" is strongly encouraged either to email me or to connect on Twitter via @tvdvdguuy.