Before Air Bud, before Beethoven, there was Benji, one of the most beloved (and financially successful) canine characters in cinema history — and yet, oddly enough, a name unfamiliar to an entire generation of kids who haven’t seen a new installment since 2004’s “Benji: Off the Leash!” That’s 14 long years ago, which means there’s no one in this film’s target audience (unless you count “kids at heart”) who was alive when the last film came out.
Now, thanks to Netflix, the shaggy mutt returns to the screen (although not the big one, alas) for a “Benji” reboot that proves this particular dog has more lives than most cats, more charm than most humans and more earnings potential than the proverbial golden-egg-laying goose — which might explain why Blumhouse (the low-budget genre shingle best known for horror films like “Get Out” and “Paranormal Activity”) got behind what is essentially a remake of the 1974 original, even if the family-friendly canine romp appears relatively far outside its wheelhouse.
It’s a win-win for all involved: Netflix gets a name-brand kids title, Blumhouse recoups on a modest investment and the Camp family renews its claim on an empire of merchandising that exceeded $1.2 billion in its heyday. Without wandering far from the tried-and-true formula, director Brandon Camp (son of “Benji” creator Joe Camp) brings a measure of style and competence to the project that the franchise has never seen.
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Making room for salt-of-the-earth supporting characters (like pawnshop owner Gralen Bryant Banks) and feel-good folk-song interludes (including a cross-country montage that echoes a scene from Todd Solondz’s miserabilist “Wiener-Dog”), “Benji” reintroduces a lovable dog in need of a good home, as well as a pair of latchkey kids, Carter (“The Dangerous Book for Boys” star Gabriel Bateman) and Frankie (Darby Camp, no relation to the director), who find him wandering the streets of New Orleans.
Benji may not look like much at first, but he’s the best-trained “stray” in showbiz, clever enough to outwit animal control and foil a kidnapping plan. His enormous brown eyes and unkempt long hair are an essential part of the character’s appeal, encouraging audiences to project whatever emotion is called for, while conveniently overlooking that any dog that knows this many tricks had to be taught by someone, and probably isn’t homeless. If only there were some statistic for the number of rescue dogs who have been adopted as a direct result of the Benji movies.
In an endearing touch, this latest installment opens with a dogcatcher taking away Benji’s mom and the tiny pup sitting alone in the street looking bereft. Actually, the dog looks like he’s expecting to get a treat the instant Camp calls, “Cut!” but that’s part of the magic of the Benji movies: They are perhaps the best examples in contemporary cinema of the Kuleshov effect — the basic principle of film editing, established by Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov nearly a century ago, that audiences attribute emotion to a blank face according to the shot immediately before or after. (The experiment showed that if the same neutral closeup of an actor’s face was intercut with a plate of soup, a child in a coffin, and an attractive woman, people projected the appropriate feeling — hunger, sadness or desire — onto the vacant expression.)
Dog acting works via a similar principle: If Camp can be clear enough in the way he constructs any given scene, audiences will do all the work of ascribing emotion and intention onto Benji’s performance — which mostly involves looking in the right direction, running across the screen and hitting his mark (although there are other more impressive cases where he must carry something in his mouth, push a trash bin or chair into position or run a few paces ahead of a ferocious Rottweiler).
The best example is an elaborate chase sequence, during which Benji appears to be fast on the trail of a van in which two thieves (Will Rothhaar and Angus Sampson) have tied up Carter and Frankie, en route to the run-down plantation home that serves as their lair. Benji and the vehicle are almost never seen in the same shot, which means that we must do all the work of guessing where they are in relation to one another. Carter drops strawberries out an open window, and somehow that’s enough for Benji to go on.
Meanwhile, staring at a dog that can’t speak (which was a key rule that has set the Benji movies apart from the beginning), the kids’ single mom (Kiele Sanchez) and a friendly cop (Jerod Haynes) struggle to understand what Benji is trying to communicate — and what any child watching can tell them: “Follow Benji! He knows where they’ve taken Carter and Frankie!” It’s an effective dynamic that puts young viewers in that all-too-familiar position of trying to convince grown-ups to listen to them when they have something important to say.
“Benji” may be far too simplistic for adults to find much enjoyment in watching, but it rewards active viewing from kids and displays mostly model behavior on the part of its young protagonists (once they stop keeping secrets from their mother, that is). Parents should be warned, however, that everyone who sees it will want to adopt a dog of his or her own afterward.