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Fetching Hero Returns: Christian Filmmaker Brings Benji Back to the Big Screen

by Jenni Parker
July 19, 2004
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(AgapePress) - An old friend of the family is returning to theaters next month. With the August 20 release of his new movie, Benji Off the Leash!, filmmaker Joe Camp is reminding audiences what family entertainment used to mean -- and hoping to prove to Hollywood that a heartwarming and wholesome story that teaches family values is just the breed of entertainment moviegoers of all ages will line up for.

Thirty years ago Camp's company, Mulberry Square Productions, introduced to the big screen the little dog that became the adorable, furry phenomenon called Benji. After his first eponymous movie in 1974 came the popular sequels For the Love of Benji (1977) and Benji the Hunted (1987), with Camp writing all three scripts. And now the filmmaker has done it again, bringing both a brand new Benji (the dog-star) and a brand new, tail-wagging tale of canine adventure to a new generation.

Family-friendly entertainment: Will audiences sit up and beg for more?

Camp says the Benji concept grew out of his long-time desire just to make movies that would "create value-based, good memories for people that would leave a residue and would change their lives." And toward that end, the Christian movie producer has once again penned a family-oriented script about a little dog's life and the many lives he touches.

Normally a slow writer, Camp points out that this time the words poured out of him with extraordinary ease and swiftness. "The story emanated from where the good ones come from," he says, "which is not from me and my brain, but clearly from God saying, 'Let me show you something.'" And Benji's director and "dad" says it was important to him that the movie contain that spiritual substance. "If a movie's not going to stand for something, if it's not going to mean something, there's no point. All of the Benji movies are about love and hope and persistence toward a goal -- about not giving up," he explains, "and that's where this one wound up as well."

Camp says Benji Off the Leash! is "not a Christian movie per se," but he says Christ has been involved in the project from the beginning, and the film embodies Christ's teachings about love, hope, and perseverance. "It teaches you to always think of somebody else's needs, and don't give up when you're trying to help someone," the filmmaker says, "and I think Benji was able to do that all through the story."

Of course Benji's screen story is fictional, but a real drama lies behind it, informing both the plot and his performance. Like his character in the film, the star of Benji is no stranger to abandonment. That is because, like the star of the original Benji film -- whose real name was actually Higgins and who was already a veteran TV actor when he assumed the movie role, having retired from a running part on a series called "Pettycoat Junction" -- the new star of Benji Off the Leash! was rescued from an animal shelter.

Camp was intentional about that. He searched shelters all over the U.S. to find a new Benji because the first Benji's origins in a shelter had inspired over a million pet adoptions around the country. "We felt this was the right thing to do," says the proud owner of the rescued canine and a few other dogs besides.

Camp originally intended to put the new dog, along with other candidates found in the talent search, in what he calls "Benji Boot Camp" and then to choose the lead dog afterward. However, he says he knew he had found his star almost immediately upon discovering the talented pup in the adoption center of a Gulfport, Mississippi Petsmart. "After 15 minutes we knew that this was going to be Benji," he says.

Teaching a new generation old values

Thirty years ago when the first Benji debuted on the big screen, the lovable little dog was an instant hit with parents and children across the nation. This reviewer recalls sitting in the theater as a youngster, thrilling to the adventures of a screen hero who exhibited the best of those traits that have earned a noble reputation for canine companions the world over: bravery, tenderness, intelligence, loyalty, and persistence.

No doubt about it -- back then, Benji "had me at hello," so to speak. But then, three decades later, I never would have thought writer-director-producer Joe Camp could bring forth a brand new Benji with an up-to-date storyline that would melt my jaded heart all over again in exactly the same way.

The film is neither saccharine nor stilted, but well-acted with an involving plot that often delves into humor but also deals poignantly with some serious themes, which is what prompts a PG rather than a G rating. The story touches on conservation and care for animals, blended family and broken family relationships, and even abandonment and abuse. But while wrestling with those harsh realities, it never becomes dark, thanks to winning moments of comic relief from the human cast and a shaggy co-star -- as well as a plucky protagonist who never stops seeking to make things better for those he loves.

 
Benji in a scene from Benji Off the Leash! (Copyright 2004 Mulberry Square Productions)

It is a story that spans generations, and that entertains while offering numerous teachable moments. At one point during the sneak preview I attended, the canine main character nudged a scrap of hard-won food toward his ailing mother, who due to her owner's neglect was too weak even to lift her head. At that moment in the story I heard a little girl in the row behind me whisper to her father, referring to Benji, "He's sweet." The adult murmured back to her, "Well, he's trying to take care of his mother."

That exchange drove home for me an added charm of the film -- its abundance of "teachable moments." What better tool is there to put into the hands of Christian parents than an engaging story about a lovable hero both they and their young children can relate to, whose kindness and character inspire instant admiration?

Responsible movie-maker refuses to roll over

Joe Camp has had to face his share of skeptics, from adults who thought such films must be, by definition, sappy or dull, to industry professionals who doubted audiences would be drawn to such gentle fare in the first place. But with all the past Benji movies, the producer-director has always been able to count on the audience to prove what he says he has always known, "that a good story, well-told, with strong emotional involvement will always entertain."

Money was scarce, so Camp tried negotiating with some of the major Hollywood studios to get backing for his picture. However, he insisted on maintaining creative control. "I could not allow them to take this away," he says. "If I had to go sell shoes, I was not going to sell my soul. I've seen what they do with so many other family movies that have come out -- lowered the bar one four-letter word at a time, one sexual innuendo at a time." But that would have been the tail wagging the dog -- and Camp was not about to stand for it. He struggled and scraped and somehow managed to finance the picture independently.

Now the director of Benji Off the Leash! is encouraging all who appreciate positive, family-friendly entertainment to go see the film the weekend of its August 20 opening. A strong premier will not only help ensure a lengthy and successful box-office run, he says, but it will also send a strong message to the entertainment industry. "We hope to prove that all of the industry is not out to lower the bar of responsibility and drop to the lowest common denominator in order to enhance the bottom line," he says.

Instead, the pro-family filmmaker wants to raise the bar, returning it to a former, much higher standard of decency and family values. "We have the opportunity to influence and affect millions of kids and to do it responsibly," Camp says. "The machine-gun fast pace, violence, and crude humor found in what kids are watching today is plainly not good for them. Add that to the desensitizing of kids to violence and respect for one another," he adds, "and I fail to see how anyone can call it good. It's just not necessary."

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