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Looking Back: Benji The Hunted (1987)

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people talk in silly animal voices while visiting a zoo. Apparently, it’s not enough to gaze at the magnificence of a gorilla in its habitat or watch a lion clean itself just a few feet away. Some people think its entirely necessary and possibly funny to provide the animal’s inner monolog. “He’s thinking, I wish I had a T-bone steak right now,” or “I’ll bet he’s thinking, Come closer and I’ll bite you!” Hyuh Hyuh Hyuh. So stupid and trite. I hear this kind of thing every time I’m at any zoo, no matter which section I’m visiting. Whether it’s the penguins (“Hey guys, let’s start marching!”) or the reptiles (“He’s thinking, I wish I had some arms and legs!”), people just can’t seem to help themselves. Movies are no better. The annual Disney Earth Day nature documentary is always narrated by a celebrity who sounds like he’s been to the same zoo I have. Few things are as cringe worthy as hearing Tim Allen provide unwanted dialog for chimpanzees, whose actions speak just fine for themselves, thank you very much. Allen even managed to squeeze his “To Infinity and Beyond” trademark line into his chimp talk.

I mention all this to praise the decision of Joe Camp’s ambitious “Benji The Hunted” to mostly do away with all humans and dialog. By the time this film had opened in 1987, Benji had already made his mark as a canine mega movie star, along the likes of Lassie, Rin-Tin-Tin and Toto. The early “Benji” and the ridiculously titled “For The Love of Benji” offered cutesy-poo storylines in which the humans were never as interesting as Benji, the poodle breed dog with expressive eyes and shaggy brown fur. Camp made the intriguing misfire, “Oh, Heavenly Dog!,” in which Chevy Chase is murdered, then reincarnated as Benji. Having Chase provides Benji’s dialog, solve his own murder and jump gleefully into a bathtub with Jane Seymour, it was hard to figure out who the audience for that movie was for. “Benji The Hunted” course corrected the franchise and is one of the best dog-driven Disney movies since “Old Yeller.”

The opening titles play over Joe Cocker-sound alike Guy Hovis’ somber “So Many Yesterdays,” a curious way to open a children’s movie about a lovable dog. The downbeat mood extends to the introductory scenes, in which a fake newscast reveals that Benji, America’s favorite canine superstar, is missing and may have drowned after falling off a ship(!). Benji’s trainer, Frank Inn (playing himself), looks distraught and believably conveys his anguish to the newscaster. It’s like watching one of those tragic news stories over the dinner table that makes children cry and parents wishing they had turned off the TV when they had the chance.

Thankfully, rather than cutting to Benji’s funeral, Camp jumps to a Robinson Cruesoe-like shot of Benji emerging on a beach. Benji discovers he’s lost in an Oregon wilderness and frequently tries to catch the attention of Inn, as he flies by in a helicopter. Benji soon encounters a mountain lion, which is shot by a local hunter (shades of “Bambi”). Later, when Benji discovers four orphaned mountain lion cubs, he decides to take care of them and protect them from a wolf lurking nearby.

I should correct myself and state that Benji is played by a female in this movie, though it hardly matters. What does matter is the moment where Benji sees a way out of the woods but decides to stay and protect the cubs. Camp knows how to milk these moments of Benji “acting.” Some audiences will miss Chase providing commentary or more than one human character making fleeting appearances. Not me. There is a purity to the storytelling, as Camp is going for a Jack London-like survival tale and pulls off some stirring sequences. It’s one thing to see Sylvester Stallone or Tom Cruise climb the side of a mountain but it’s another to see Benji do it; the close-up of Benji’s furry legs, struggling to keep balance and not slide off a cliff, is potently suspenseful. So are the effective moments where Camp manages to get Benji, the cubs and the wolf in the same shot. You have to be a real cynic to not be engaged with this cute and rousing adventure film.

To be fair, there are way too many shots of Benji running around and the cinematography is point-and-shoot simple. I like the score by Betty and Euel Box, though it would work just as well as escalator music at the mall as it does for a motion picture. The big scene everyone remembers is Benji’s ultimate comeuppance of the wolf, which provides a fairly outrageous and crowd pleasing visual that wouldn’t go over well today.

To date, there has only been one more Benji film, the best-forgotten “Benji: Off the Leash.” Camp’s “Benji The Hunted” could be made today with easy CGI animal integration and a more polished production but there is a gruffness and genuine sense of adventure to what he pulled off here. Here is a Disney nature movie that is tough at times (like the heartbreaking shot of an eagle carrying away a cub). There are moments that generate awe, as well as the general, overwhelming cuteness. Best of all, the movie keeps its mouth shut and allows Benji and his animal co-stars to carry out their story without dumb human commentary. Truly, talking over the wonder and mystery of nature’s creatures is for the dogs.

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