This highly-anticipated new Benji opens with a horrific scene of a dog-napper harshly treating a mama dog and her pups as he throws them into a crate, without any regards for their wellbeing or whimpering. One of the puppies gets left behind to fend for himself, and leads the life of a stray well into adulthood. In the face of harsh weather, mean strays, and oblivious people who don’t notice, let alone care about him, the dog continues on his journey to seemingly nowhere. Then one day, Carter (Gabriel Bateman) breaks the trend by not just noticing him, but attempts to bring him home.
However, as soon as mom (Kiele Sanchez) tells him the dog cannot stay, he immediately takes the dog outside, into the pouring rain, and tells it to go away or it will be taken to the pound. And yet…despite being repeatedly tossed aside, Benji somehow manages to bond with Carter and his sister Frankie (Darby Camp) overnight, enough to want to help them when they fall prey into the hands of desperate kidnappers.
The horrible treatment of animals is only the beginning of how this movie fails to be the family friendly dog movie the name Benji is famous for. The tricks Benji performs in the film are also completely unrealistic – have you ever seen a dog move a dumpster? Or understand the importance of forensic evidence? Or how to use a key to unlock a door? I don’t think so! Some might argue that Benji is just a very well trained dog, but that begs the question: who trained him and when? He was a homeless mutt that lived on the streets and sustained himself on scraps.
Aside from the traumatic experiences the dogs in this movie go through, the humans in this film don’t fare much better. A frazzled single mom, a robbery gone wrong, and a kidnapping that tops the list of clichés, Benji is filled with overacting and few of those sweet moments that would make anyone want to watch again.
To his credit, director Brandon Camp (son of original Benji director Joe Camp) keeps the story moving at a good pace, though focusing on Benji saving the day substantially diminished his ability to explore the characters. Character motivations felt weak, forced and blown out of proportion. Still, the star pooch’s expressions were quite adorable, making me think he was probably the best actor in the movie.
Having seen previous Benji films and other favorite animal films that celebrate dogs and the kids who love them, including Homeward Bound, Beethoven, and even Air Bud, this updated Benji falls short of all those classics. In fact, its only redeeming value is the well deserved attention surrounding its furry star. Also, despite being labeled a family movie some younger viewers may be upset by some of the violence against dogs depicted here. Older kids and adults may also be unhappy with the stereotyped Rottweiler playing the antagonist canine whose story is never resolved.
Overall, Benji does little to show the true nature of dogs, the reality of modern shelters, how dog rescuers take strays off the street, and how fragile these animals are at the hands of those who would hurt them. There was a time in my not-so-distant past when I would look forward to family friendly animal movies like this, if for no other reason to remind me there was still hope, love, and goodness in the world. Sadly, the Benji of 2018 doesn’t hold up to this standard.