It’s been a mere 14 years since the last “Benji” movie. But in dog years, that’s an eternity.
In an entertainment world more cacophonous than a kennel, bringing back such an exceedingly wholesome creature is a kind of a test: Can the humble, wordless tricks of a mongrel born and bred in the ’70s still charm young viewers?
“Benji” is a remake of Joe Camp’s 1974 original, an independently released film (all the studios passed) made as scrappily as its mangy mutt star, played by the then-veteran pup Higgins, co-star of “Petticoat Junction.” Yet “Benji” became a bona fide pop-culture sensation and the year’s 10th biggest box-office hit, ranking among the likes of “Blazing Saddles,” ”Young Frankenstein” and “The Godfather Part II.” (It was, um, a different time.)
But the appeal of a heroic pooch is, of course, eternal. There remains no better way to separate the wheat from the chaff of humanity than the moral calculus offered up by dog movies: The good are those who are kind to canines; the bad are those who aren’t. Simple as that. Unlike that prissy Lassie or that show-pony terrier from “The Artist,” Benji is beloved because he’s a flea bag off the streets. Benji is Every Dog, with just a touch more training.
“Benji” is written and directed by Brandon Camp, son of Joe Camp, and he’s aimed to preserve much of his father’s template. The location has been switched from Texas to New Orleans. The single parent skeptical of adopting a stray is now an EMT mom (Kiele Sanchez) instead of a dad. But the basic formula is much the same, down to even the inclusion of Charlie Rich’s original theme, “I Feel Love.” A brother and sister pair (Gabriel Bateman and Darby Camp, unrelated to the director) get caught in a pickle and Benji comes to the rescue.
This is a movie about a dog that not only thoroughly understands English but also grasps the importance of forensic evidence in a police investigation. And yet “Benji” is less believable when the superdog isn’t around. There’s an implausible kidnapping plot, some rather grating and over-acted family dramatics and villains who appear to be going for a record in cliche ne’er-do-welling.
But the dog is, as ever, irresistibly winning. Here, his feats surpass even those of the door-opening Raptors in “Jurassic Park.” Benji does them one better, opening a locked room with a key he grips in his mouth.
For those looking for the most benign family-friendly entertainment, the nostalgic and corny “Benji” will do the trick. The greatest irony is that the film is produced by Jason Blum, whose production company, Blumhouse, has become synonymous with contemporary R-rated horror. Now he has proven — so long as he doesn’t have more sinister sequels for “Benji” planned — that he can raise loveable beasts from the dead, too.
“Benji,” a Netflix release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America. It contains some intense scenes, mild violence and growling that could contain dog expletives. Running time: 87 minutes. Two stars out of four.