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Benji: Off the Leash

It feels bad giving a negative review to a movie like Benji:  Off the Leash because its intentions are certainly in the right place.  Yet, the quality of the film is so mediocre and its portrayal of animals and humans so dull that only the smallest of children that it merits a bad review.  Then again, it has a decent message, and is more moral than most children's film.  If anything, Benji:  Off the Leash feels like an extended public service announcement extolling the virtues of pet adoption and condemning the evils of puppy mills (oh yeah, and spousal abuse is bad too).  Moreover, the movie unintentionally turns into a commercial for itself, which is pretty distasteful.

There are three official Benji movies, and one unofficial one.  So this makes this the fourth "official" Benji film after quite a long absence.  Oddly enough, there is no "Benji" character for most of the film.  There are two dogs starring in it, one dubbed "Lizard Tongue" and another simply called "Puppy."  The main character is Colby (Nick Whitaker, Brigham City, Bug Off!), a young boy who lives in fear of his father Hatchett (Chris Kendrick, The Ivy Exchange, The Singles Ward), who runs a puppy mill in their backyard.  Colby's mom (Christy Summerhays, Little Secrets, Same River Twice) is unable to do anything about the mills, or the way that Hatchett treats Colby.  When Hatchett's purebred breeder mates with a mongrel, a cute white puppy is the result.  Hatchett wants to kill it, but Colby keeps it alive in secret.

At the same time, two inept dogcatchers, Livingston (Randall Newsome, Big Fat Liar, Highlander II) and Sheldon (Duane Stephens, No Dogs Allowed, Out of Line) are after a particularly clever dog they dub Lizard Tongue.  He manages to escape despite their every attempt to trap him.  Everybody wants to get Hatchett, Colby wants a puppy, some random old guy wants a dog, and this reviewer was trying to stay awake.  Although writer/director/Benji creator Joe Camp (Benji the Hunted, Oh, Heavenly Dog!) clearly loves his material and his causes, he never gets the material above the level of cheesy.  The acting and writing quality if just not up to par.  Camp is aiming the film squarely at young children.  There are cutesy shots of animals, Colby with puppy, and most of the adults are buffoons.  Worse, the whole spousal abuse issue seems a little too adult and real for a movie like this.

The two dogs in the film were adopted from shelters after a nationwide search for the next Benji.  Both are cute and yes, everybody wants to play with them, but Benji:  Off the Leash (he's never really on a leash in the first place) needs more than cute dogs to sustain itself.  There is the prerequisite sad scene at the end with the crying boy, but it feels so out of place given the tone of the rest of the film.  For a much better film, go rent My Dog Skip and pretend that Skip came from the animal shelter (hey, maybe he did - the film never specified it).

Haro Rates It: Not That Good.
1 hour, 40 minutes, Rated PG for thematic elements and some mild language.

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