One of the most successful independent movies of the ’70s, the gentle family film Benji depicts the adventures of a resourceful stray dog that scams regular meals from a pair of upper-middle-class children in a small Texas town, then wins a permanent place in their home by rescuing the children from kidnappers. The centerpiece of the movie is Higgins, a scruffy mixed-breed shelter dog furnished and trained by Frank Inn. “Playing” the title role, Higgins executes a seemingly endless variety of complicated maneuvers, interacting with actors, props, stunts, and vehicles in such a natural way that the illusion of a deliberate performance is persuasive.
Putting Higgins through his paces is writer-director Joe Camp, the creator of the Benji franchise, who keeps the focus just where it belongs—literally, since the bulk of the movie is shot at Benji’s eye level, with the camera hovering close to the ground. There’s no denying the appeal of an amiable dog scampering around the sidewalks of a small town, charming everyone he meets, and Camp endeavors to give the movie narrative shape with the kidnapping melodrama. Nonetheless, Benji is pure feel-good fluff.
Setting aside the main contrivance of Benji as a crime-fighting mastermind, the movie is so unrelentingly sunny that the worst moment involves a bad guy kicking Benji’s puppy girlfriend, causing no permanent injury; furthermore, even the townspeople who consider Benji a nuisance secretly love him. Other saccharine excesses include a slow-motion romantic montage featuring Benji and his girlfriend, and the recurring use of “I Feel Love,” a bouncy tune crooned by cheeseball country singer Charlie Rich.
Still, Benji is notable-ish for featuring the last film performances by ’60s TV favorites Frances Bavier (“Aunt Bea” from The Andy Griffith Show) and Edgar Buchanan (who played “Uncle Joe Carson” in three series: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction). Furthermore, it’s impressive that Camp got the movie onscreen for a frugal $500,000, especially since Benji earned $40 million at the U.S. box office.
Given that success, sequels were inevitable. The first, For the Love of Benji, is set in Greece. Reprising their roles are the mediocre actors playing Benji’s juvenile owners (Allen Fiuzat and Cynthia Smith) and their housekeeper (Patsy Garrett). Their characters get mixed up with a criminal who sedates Benji with chloroform and hides valuable information on the dog’s paw. When Benji escapes from the crook, a Disney-style romp ensues during which the bad guy chases the dog and his “family” worries about his welfare. Typical high jinks involve the four-legged star disrupting a marketplace by stealing a rope of sausage links—in other words, yawn. The second movie looks better than the first, since Camp clearly had a bigger budget, but the story is dull and insipid.
After For the Love of Benji, the canine star headlined a pair of TV specials before returning to the big screen in Oh! Heavenly Dog, a 1980 dud costarring Chevy Chase. Joe Camp has periodically resuscitated the franchise since then, but has yet to recapture the public’s imagination the way he first did in 1974. And in case you’re curious, Higgins’ pups eventually took over the role their papa originated.
For the Love of Benji: LAME