Benji: The Hunted

August 22, 2011

Oh my god, how adorable is that, right?

You’d probably forgotten all about Benji, the scenery-chewing little mutt who starred in a series of movies and TV specials during the late 1970s and early ’80s. But the pooch was a bona fide phenomenon, and Benji: The Hunted just goes to show you can’t keep a good dog down.

This time out Benji plays “himself,” as the credits have it. (And, by the way, this is the first film in my experience to acknowledge “special cougar work” in the opening credits. Must have a strong union.) As the film begins, a reporter breathlessly announces that the internationally famous canine star has been washed overboard in a storm at sea. Trainer Frank Inn (who also, interestingly, plays “himself”) sets out in a helicopter to try to locate his prize pup, but he mourns that he may already be too late.

Not a chance—Benji, as we will see in the course of the film, is one resilient puppy. He dog-paddles through the surf to splash ashore on the Oregon coast. No sooner does he shake himself dry than he witnesses the shooting of a mountain lion. Then Benji stumbles upon the cat’s four orphaned kittens, alone and hungry in the woods.

Benji scopes out the situation very quickly, and the film is taken up with his care for these cougar cubs, even at the risk of his own scruffy neck. The main threats are a hunter, a big Kodiak bear, and a black timber wolf.

This goes on for better than 90 minutes, which, for a movie aimed primarily at children, is a mite too long, particularly since the movie is almost entirely without dialogue—dialogue that we humans can understand, anyway.

The writer-director Joe Camp, who has made all of the Benji movies, is pretty shrewd about pleasing the crowd. He also takes some surprising care in building an authentic sense of danger by composing shots of Benji and his predators within the same frame, although he could more easily have used separate shots. He dallies too much, especially toward the last 15 minutes, but the gags and the wet-eyed cubs will amuse kids.

Benji’s performance is quite dexterous—how does this dog do all those double-takes on cue, anyway? Reportedly this is not the original Benji, but the offspring of that first major star. Clearly, the genes are strong, and the pup learned a lot from Papa. Let’ just hope he also learned about not letting success swell his shaggy head, else the pooch “Go Hollywood” like that insufferable prima donna, Spuds Mackenzie.

First published in the Herald, June 20, 1987 says the running time is 88 minutes, so either this thing has been cut or I got something wrong all those years ago. In any case, the movie deserves some tiny amount of credit for eschewing dialogue (anticipating Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Bear by about a year?) and for actually bothering to follow some filmmaking rules about the importance of integral shots. If you don’t know Spuds Mackenzie, well, you really missed an era.