Thirty years, three feature follow-ups and assorted TV spinoffs after "Benji" (1974), his indie sleeper hit about a lovably resourceful mutt, filmmaker Joe Camp returns to his roots with a pleasant, retro kidpic that should please undemanding moppets without boring their parents. Doubtless will enjoy shelf-life as homevid diversion.

Thirty years, three feature follow-ups and assorted TV spinoffs after “Benji” (1974), his indie sleeper hit about a lovably resourceful mutt, filmmaker Joe Camp returns to his roots with a mildly pleasant, aggressively retro kidpic that should please undemanding moppets without unduly boring their parents. After fleeting sprint through theatrical kennels, “Benji: Off the Leash!” doubtless will enjoy dog years of shelf-life as harmless homevid diversion.

Latest product from Camp’s Mulberry Square Prods., known variously as “Benji Returns: Rags to Riches” and “Benji Returns: The Promise of Christmas” during its production, could justifiably be titled “Benji: The Beginning.” No kidding: Modestly clever framing device indicates “Off the Leash” provides backstory of latest canine to be cast as Benji.

Colby (Nick Whitaker), pic’s human protag, is a lonely 14-year-old boy whose abusive father, aptly named Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), runs an illegal dog-breeding operation in the backyard of their small-town Mississippi home. When his prize breeder gives birth to a mixed-breed litter, Hatchett angrily attempts to dispose of the most obviously mongrelish offspring. But Colby saves the cute little puppy and hides it in his favorite hangout: a clubhouse constructed from an abandoned school bus in the nearby woods.

Evidently not the most imaginative of lads, Colby names the mongrel Puppy and continues to refer to the dog as such long after it grows up enough to resemble — well, Benji. While Hatchett cruelly forces Puppy’s mother to continue breeding — thereby risking the dog’s life, and raising questions that parents may not want their children to ask — Puppy survives and thrives with only minimal attendance by Colby. Left more or less to his own devices, he develops a mutually beneficial friendship with Lizard Tongue, another stray dog with plenty of pluck.

Puppy and Lizard Tongue spend most of the pic avoiding two bumbling dogcatchers, Livingston (Randall Newsome) and Sheldon (Dane Stephens), hapless humans sorely outmatched whenever they engage in duels of wits with dogs.

As it turns out, however, the dogcatchers exist only to provide comic relief of the most slapsticky sort. The real plot-propelling menace is provided by Hatchett, the irredeemable villain of the piece.

Camp takes pains to refrain from onscreen violence during “Benji: Off the Leash!” Then again, there’s no real need for explicit mayhem: Kendrick plays Hatchett with more than enough surliness to suggest that, while the audience isn’t looking, the dog-breeder truly is a mean SOB to his intimidated wife (Christy Summerhays) and son. (This, too, may cause inquisitive tykes to ask questions parents may not want to answer.)

Much as he did three decades ago in his first “Benji” pic, Camp relies heavily on crafty close-ups and intercutting to make his canine stars appear marvelously expressive in their actions, reactions and interactions. There are no computer-generated images in “Off the Leash,” just meticulously planned shots of Puppy and Lizard Tongue as they go through their well-rehearsed motions.

There’s nothing quite so amazing here as the scene in “Benji” where the title hero managed to open a pull-top can of pudding. (For that matter, the puppy-breeding plot here doesn’t generate as much suspense as the original pic’s kidnapping scenario.) Still, there’s something richly amusing and dramatically satisfying about the sequence in which Puppy figures out how to open a gate and unlock a cage to free his sickly mom. Little wonder that the heroic dog eventually is cast as … well, you figure it out.

“Benji: Off the Leash!” proceeds at a dawdling pace, which likely will limit its appeal to kids who have graduated from “Blue’s Clues” and “Sesame Street” to “Pokemon” and “Yu-Gi-Oh!” But the four-legged stars are engaging, and a few of the human co-stars — especially Neal Barth as a robust Burl Ives lookalike who adopts Lizard Tongue — manage to keep from being upstaged by the canines.

Tech values are unremarkable. A few glitches in continuity probably will go unnoticed by pic’s target aud.

For the record: Joe Camp followed “Benji” with two sequels — “For the Love of Benji” (1977) and “Benji the Hunted” (1987) — and one exceedingly weird stand-alone product, “Oh, Heavenly Dog!” (1980). In latter, Chevy Chase plays a private eye who’s murdered during the opening minutes and reincarnated as Benji (whose thoughts are voiced by Chase throughout remainder of pic). Omar Sharif figures into the plot as a bad guy. No, I’m not making that up.

Benji: Off the Leash!

Production

A Mulberry Square release of a Benji Returns production in association with Mulberry Square Prods. Produced by Joe Camp, Margaret Loesch. Executive producers, Jack Lewis, Phoebe Lewis, Jim Ritchie, Sherman Muths Jr., Sherman Muths III, Roy C. Williams. Co-producer: Joe Camp III. Directed, written by Joe Camp.

Crew

Camera (color), Don Reddy; editor, Dava Whisenant; music, Anthony DiLorenzo; production designer, Eric Weiler; costume designer, Glenn Ralston; sound, Scott Kramer; casting, Cate Praggastis, Judi McKee. Associate producer, Tim Tortora. Reviewed at Cinemark Tinseltown Westchase, Houston, Aug. 20, 2004. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Colby - Nick Whitaker Sheriff Ozzie - Nate Bynum Hatchett - Chris Kendrick Livingston - Randall Newsome Sheldon - Duane Stephens Claire - Christy Summerhays Dudley - Carleton Bluford Zacharia Finch - Neal Barth Miriam - Melinda Haynes Nancy - Kathleen Camp Paul - Jeff Olson Donnie Madison - Lincoln Hoppe Vet - Joey Miyashima Joe Camp - Scott Wilkinson
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