“People love dogs, Lassie pictures always gross high,” remarked a creatively stunted and money-minded studio executive in Frank Darabont’s 2001 feature film The Majestic. Well, in all fairness, he was not wrong.
There was a time when the notion of the family audience used to be a big thing in the business of making films. And like Christmas movies and fun-filled adventure thrillers, pictures with animals as the main leads also used to be big hits. So much so that a director like Joe Camp has made an entire career making movies about one stray mutt – the adorable Benji, who wags his tail, fights bad guys and wins hearts – making audiences root for him all the way till the curtains dropped.
Once shunned by all major studios of Hollywood, the Benji movies went on to gather a cult following, and the pretty little pup became a pop culture icon. And 14 years after Camp Sr made the last Benji movie, his son filmmaker Brandon Camp brings the same canine star back to screen with a remake of his father’s 1974 film of the same name.
As with all films of this genre, the plot is fairly simple. A stray dog is saved by a young boy named Carter, who along with his sister Frankie, brings him home and names him Benji – after Benjamin Franklin, who ‘thought dogs were more reliable than people’. The siblings’ mother is a widowed ambulance driver barely managing to keep her family afloat. The kids keep visiting a neighbourhood pawnbroker’s store to try and buy back their father’s watch but thanks to the little money that they manage to accumulate each time, the aged pawnbroker keeps sending them away. On one such visit, the kids walk into a robbery and the two goons nab them along with the loot, taking them to their hideout in a desolate part of town. It is then that the hero of the film – young Benji – leaps into action, quite literally, in a bid to save the children.
The film has an old-world charm about it, and perhaps keeping in mind its young audience, almost all of the characters have been shown as one-note. The bad guys always growl and make evil faces. The kids speak in adorable tones. The mother is portrayed as helpless and frustrated. But just beneath the surface, one finds a whole new set of personalities in the garb of the façades. Which is why, the old pawnbroker explains that he keeps sending the kids away every time not because they do not have the money to buy their father’s watch back but simply because he likes their company. The two siblings are also shown as possessing far greater inner strength for their age, a result of fending for themselves and taking care of each other in the absence of their parents. Their filial piety is surely going to choke you up on a number of occasions throughout the film.
The city of New Orleans is also as much a character in the film as any other, with its sun-kissed pavements, bright coloured street cars and that lovely tribute to Arthur J Robinson, more popularly known through Louisiana as Mr Okra, the singing fruit vendor. It is from Mr Okra, played by Robinson himself, that Carter buys the strawberries that he then leaves as breadcrumbs for Benji to follow his lead. It is these simple moments that make you realise that even without a big budget or stunning CGI or VFX, the film essentially has its heart in the right place.
The star of the film, of course, is Benji. On a number of occasions, I found myself gasping at his astonishingly expressive eyes. No animatronics here, just the good old face of man’s best friend, beautifully captured by a loving camera. Benji yelps, Benji leaps. Benji solves puzzles, Benji teaches a ferocious Rottweiler a lesson. But the most heartwarming scene of the film comes when Benji manages to employ the help of another stray with a keen sense of smell, making an ally out of what was once a threat.
If you are a dog lover, Benji is the film you should watch right now. And even if you are not, you will enjoy this simple film that will leave you with a warm feeling. It is not like the film does not have its flaws. But who wants to look at flaws when there is so much love all around? It is a little pup’s love for the children who saved his life that is the highlight of the film. And that is good enough. That is all we need, really.
Benji is currently streaming on Netflix.
Published Date: Mar 17, 2018 14:18 PM | Updated Date: Mar 17, 2018 14:18 PM