Benji: Off the Leash! is at once a terrible movie and a terrific public service announcement for the ASPCA. Longtime Benji writer/director Joe Camp clearly would rather shout his anti-animal cruelty messages from a soapbox than craft an entertaining film from his director's chair, and so Leash comes off as a feeble excuse to resurrect a franchise no one was asking for in order to get a decent message out. Its heart may be in the right place, but its home should not be your local multiplex.
After a brief tease about a nationwide search for a new dog to play Benji, Leash skips down to Mississippi where malicious dog breeder Hatchett (Chris Kendrick) is overworking his prize pooch. How do we know Hatchett's evil? Well, beyond his wicked-sounding name, he actually hauls off and tosses one half-breed puppy across a room in an early scene. You can almost hear the boos and hisses from the target audience.
Luckily Captain Satan has a sweet-natured and stubborn son, Colby (Nick Whitaker), who adopts the puppy and hides him in his swampy clubhouse. We prepare ourselves for a boy-and-his-dog tearjerker, but Camp isn't finished yet. Before long, Leash has introduced a slew of major characters including Hatchett's beleaguered wife, two buffoonish Animal Control officers, a grocery store clerk, a kindly old eccentric gentleman living on the outskirts of town, the local sheriff, a Humane Society worker and a second pooch who is pushed out the passenger side of a moving car with no explanation of why he was abandoned. Whose story should Leash follow? Camp's not sure, and he doesn't divide the movie's time properly.
Camp last made a Benji movie in 1987, and Leash doesn't justify another stab at the franchise. With each insignificant role in the film's script, you half expect to see a glorified cameo by a washed-up star, but Camp couldn't even coax a name actor out of the shadows to play a supporting part. Where's Lee Majors, Ed O'Neill, or Jon Voight when you need them?
In place of a rough-and-tumble canine adventure, this endeavor offers a lazy ramble through the same five sets (seriously, all the action in the film takes place in the same cycle of locations) with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Continuity issues that kids won't care about pop up constantly. Are we to believe that the Animal Control idiots wasted 10 months without furthering their investigation into Hatchett or catching the town's only stray dog?
At one point, Leash almost raises a good point about how, in today's society, it's poignant that the family new Benji hopes to join is a broken one. Then Camp ruins the moment by staging an unintentionally hilarious rescue scene that has both dogs plunging off a cliff and into a stream. Bringing Benji back for a new generation isn't a bad idea, but it's a dog-gone shame that this is the best Camp and his Hollywood cronies can come up with.
A feral Benji tries to break into a cat cage for a much-needed dinner.