Continuing my holiday movie weekend, and battling a bad cold - I choose to revisit a childhood favorite. I was ten years old when I first saw Joe Camp's kiddie classic BENJI (1974), and I remember loving it because it didn't look or feel like a kid's movie. Watching it again 33 years later (on Turner Movie Classics no less!), I can see why I thought that. The film is shot mainly from the dog's point of view, and most of the human characters are "grown up", making it feel like a movie for big people.
The movie opens as we see what looks like a haunted house - only it's not haunted (too bad) - it's Benji's house! Next we witness what appears to be the little dog's daily activities - as gets his breakfast from a friendly, but guarded, housekeeper named Mary and receives affection from two annoying kids named Paul and Cindy. The kids love Benji, but their MD dad has a problem with dogs be cause his brother was bit by one - once. After hiding Benji and his food bowl under the table (and on her lap) - Mary sends the dog off for his daily scuffle with THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW's Aunt Bea and her cat. After that he stops by the park for some romantic advice from a cop and finally swings by Bill's Café to wake up Bill (slow Uncle Joe from PETTICOAT JUNCTION) for his daily bone. So to speak. Each day apparently ends with a trip back to his house- which is abandoned and filled with antiques! We see Benji go through the routine at least four times - I think even as a kid I thought that was too much.
So Benji has it pretty damn good. Until one day, when things begin to change. A foursome of dopey troublemakers named Riley, Henry, Linda and Mitch break into his house with two bags of groceries (including pudding cups!) and declare it as a base of operations for their planned evildoings. Two of the guys think the house is haunted cause their pudding cups keep disappearing. Meanwhile, Benji meets up with a little white bitch named Tiffany, who becomes his domestic partner. Tiffany soon joins him on all is daily visits and is welcomed by the townsfolk as well. Mary even gives Tiffany a little makeover!
Meanwhile, back at the house: the plan is that the four villains are gonna kidnap Paul and Cindy and hold them for ransom. It's up to Benji to foil the plan, which is not easy considering he can't talk and Cesar Milan is not around to translate his constant barking. When Benji tries to help out, one of the bad guys kicks Tiffany - and we are thought to believe that she's dead. Of course, Benji eventually figures out how to communicate to the cops and townsfolk who close in on the bad guys and rescue the young hostages. There's a great scene near the climax between Mary and bad girl Linda (Deborah Walley of GIDGET and THE MOTHERS-IN-LAW fame). In the end, Tiffany just has a broken leg and the kids' dad changes his tune and lets Benji AND Tiffany move in with the family. Yay!
As a film, the story is simple and very slow-moving. The acting is mostly subpar, with Benji delivering the best performance. The music ranges from cute, to great to really, really annoying. On my "Huh?" scale, I'll give it a 6 just for old-times sake, but only watch it if you've had your proper daily caffeine intake. There are 3 sequels and numerous TV productions starring Benji as well. I think I'll pass on them, for now.
As social commentary, the parallels between BENJI and the recently reviewed STONE PILLOW are staggering. Sure, Benji is a cute, sweet little doggie that works his way into the lives and hearts of a bunch of lazy Texans, much like Lucy's Flora character. They give him plenty of food (remember even Lucy gets old sandwiches, rotten veggies and cat food) and attention whenever the stops by their homes or workplaces, but they never address the bigger issue here - this dog is HOMELESS!!! Getting on my soapbox for a minute: Just call me Bob Barker, but I think BENJI should now be re-purposed to help enforce mandatory spaying and neutering, micro-chipping and leash laws to help keep the stray animal population down and give homes to the millions of pound puppies in this country. Happy Holidays!