Benji has changed in the three decades since the franchise began. Propelled to ‘70s superstardom with a pair of hit movies in 1974 and ‘77, he has by now mellowed into a Gen-X nostalgia commodity. He never enjoyed any big-budget comeback a la Scooby-Doo, but there has always been a specialty market in Benji retro waiting to be exploited, a market among us 30somethings who remember loving the affable mutt back when we used to blow our noses on our sleeves. Similar sentiment motivates some to dote over ABBA videos on VH-1 or maintain vanity websites devoted to The Dukes of Hazzard: the desire to see something from our childhood in full color, exactly as it was.
Still, the target of last year’s resuscitation, Benji: Off the Leash!, remains unclear. Judging from a thorough survey I conducted at the time—when I eavesdropped on a mom-and-Lilliputian-daughter duo behind me at the screening I attended—the mutt actually appeals more to grownups. As we all waited for the movie to start I surmised that mom, in fact, seemed to have duped her kid with a cover story to get her into the theater. When the lights went down and the child asked what movie they’d be seeing, she fessed up, “It’s Benji, honey.”
But if Benji’s celebrity has changed, the dog is the same humble protagonist he was back when. He never walks on his hind legs, he can’t talk, he has no dubbed-in stream of consciousness. Movie animals tend to talk out loud even when their antecedents refrain from such indulgences—witness Garfield the Cat, where the titular feline has a speaking voice and a bipedal gait even though in the comic strip he trades exclusively in thought balloons. There’s no anthropomorphism where Benji’s concerned, though. If at times he does things that would stump a real-life canine (such as opening a gate latch with his schnoz), writer/producer/director Joe Camp always leaves open the possibility that the deed was just good luck. Reserved for urgent scenes (when Benji opens the gate, it’s to rescue his mom from death by starvation and illness), such feats also provoke our wonder whether, for instance, dogs could decipher The Doorknob Principle if only the stakes are high enough.
In Benji’s salad days—the halcyon mid-‘70s, which saw Benji and follow-up For the Love of Benji become surprise hits—the films mostly concerned the mutt’s astonishing good looks: Benji forsaken, dropping his chin to the ground and gazing off into the empty distance, black eyes big and sad, or Benji triumphant, running in graceful, operatic slo-mo toward the camera to the accompaniment of mellow wah-wah guitar. The 1974 movie courageously grants him great swaths of screen time, so minutes sometimes pass without a single line of dialogue. Benji is a child’s movie, complete with stereotypes, cheesy jokes, and goofy kid-pleasing pratfalls that make parents cringe. But its quiet moments verge sometimes, improbably, on the sublime.
We lapse into a meditative state during the first reel, as we follow the stray dog on his daily rounds, flitting from barber to postal worker to friendly neighborhood cop. Each errand seems obscure as it’s happening, because Benji never expresses his objective: is he after a scrap of leftover food? Does he want the mailman to help him meet a particular female dog? Is he chasing a cat? Or is he just being friendly? Only later, after the reward is provided, does his intention crystallize.
This is the genius of Benji, its exclusive adoption of the canine point of view. In so doing it renounces spoken language in favor of something like the preeminence of the visible you see in silent movies. Which is to say that Benji shows without naming, arguably what the movie camera does best. For much of the movie’s first half, the dog is blissfully outside language, living life forward from desire to action to experience. After he’s through running his errands, the movie goes several minutes without dialogue as, over a jaunty light rock tune, he skitters cutely to his hideout, an abandoned mansion, to eat.
At the same time, the misguided humans around Benji tend to live in reverse, the process of naming always caught up with the process of remembering or anticipating, projecting themselves into the past or future. Benji and a girlfriend visit the home of a pair of kids who want to adopt him; the housekeeper struggles over what to call Benji’s new acquaintance because the cuddly pooch “look[s] like Park Avenue and I’m just not up on high-class names.” But when she recalls an old boyfriend who once promised to take her to a jewelry store (said recollection punctuated with a gaze into the distance and a thoughtful zoom), she dubs the new dog “Tiffany.”
If the language of the good humans around Benji is steeped in sentiment, in the movie’s villains it’s instead mired in the scheming requisite to criminality. Throughout they brood in equal measure on the misdeeds of their past—naturally they walk on frame already wanted by the law—and their uncertain future, as they anxiously revise a kidnapping-for-ransom scheme designed to get them out of trouble for good. Here the movie adopts something like the feel of a fairy tale, prone as these stories are to wildly morbid turns. The bad guys are, for a children’s movie, startlingly credible—intimidating 20-something roughs (if you forgive the broad ‘70s dress and grooming) who commit a series of grave felonies, first conspiring to extort, then kidnapping Benji’s kids and taking them (in an astonishing coincidence) back to the same abandoned house where Benji’s been hiding out.
The misery these square-jawed evildoers inflict—kids gagged, small dogs kicked, handguns brandished—seems conspicuous today, in this post-Home Alone era where kid-movie villains are typically feckless and laughable. But Benji movies tend to feature real fear and tragedy, as in For the Love of Benji, which leaves our hero abandoned on the streets of Athens after a family vacation goes bad. Long scenes of the little scruffer lost in a sea of strangers—who are speaking an unsubtitled foreign tongue—were doubtless unsettling to many of the American youngsters the movie was aimed at. At eight years old, I took the prospect of abandonment pretty seriously, and the thought of being unable to talk to anyone was the stuff of nightmares.
In the magnitude of its adversities, Benji is less like today’s kids’ movies than a Grimm’s fairy tale, where dangers are often malevolent and fierce and the story also exploits genuine anxieties. Benji features the fairy tale’s pivotal coincidence, where the path of Benji, the protagonist, corresponds with the path of the bank robbers. Like Red Riding Hood’s path, and Birgitta’s in The Virgin Spring, Benji’s leads to two places: Home, or Cindy (Cynthia Smith) and Paul’s (Allen Fiuzat) house—they being the children who want to adopt him—and the Terrible Place. In traveling back and forth along this path, Benji gradually matures, developing powers of observation and interpretation unavailable to real dogs.
First Benji sees one of the criminals’ pistols and deduces its ability to do harm by flashing back to the sight of his policeman friend in an earlier gunfight. Later he watches the plotting criminals and hits on the idea of swiping their ransom note and taking it back to the kidnapped kiddies’ family. It’s hard to know what Benji, who is presumably as hopeless with written language as his four-legged brethren, thinks this will gain him. The easiest explanation is that he’s learned what it means to read simply because he has to rescue the children.
The movie uses the ransom note idea twice, first with the one written by the crooks and then, when this fails to entice the family to the mansion, with a rough draft of that note the criminals forgot to throw away. When the dog makes off with the draft note, the kidnappers are flabbergasted. How could he possibly know what scribbles on a piece of paper signify, unless he had somehow learned the nature of language, if not its specific meanings? “You don’t think he knows what he’s doing?” Bad Guy #1 asks, as they watch Benji sprint safely away with the second note in his mouth. “No,” says the skeptical Bad Guy #2, but he adds unsurely: “I’m not going to give him a chance to prove me wrong.”
Headier folks than Joe Camp have had similar ideas—take Franz Kafka, whose “A Report to an Academy” is about an ape who learns to speak in order to escape an intolerable imprisonment. Or the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, who in his 1995 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat points out that times of duress can energize people to perform spectacular feats, both mental and physical, that otherwise would far exceed their abilities.
Sacks also quotes a Swiss geologist named Albert Heim, who more than a century ago explained away the near-death phenomenon of seeing one’s life flash before one’s eyes as a result of the heightened awareness felt in times of peril. Such incidents can cause one’s perception of time to expand, Sacks writes. Mental activity becomes frenetic and long-forgotten details of one’s past race through one’s mind. So nostalgia is not only tied in with language; it’s also one of the processes of death.
Once the bad guys tear off after Benji and the incriminating ransom note, the movie shifts into gear for its conclusion. Over what may be the world’s most heartbreaking song for piano and strings, Benji runs majestically back home, fleet of foot and resolved to save the children. It’s a moment custom-made for Albert Heim: absorbed in his crisis state, Benji becomes a fount of enormous mental activity. One after another, he reviews the painful and blissful episodes of his immediate past in flashback: his meadowy romp with Tiffany followed by the cruel kick she received from the kidnappers; Cindy smothering Benji with teary-eyed love, followed by the youngsters bound and gagged, fearing for their lives.
Time becomes greatly expanded—by way of a series of slow motion shots of the galloping Benji, which give the movie the look of those old-time daguerrotypes made to study the motion of running horses. It’s Benji’s greatest triumph as an on-screen hero, but it’s also his fall from grace. Once so carefree, Benji is now corrupted by the curse of conscious reflection (he even flashes back on an earlier flashback, the one about the handguns). Like the suffering humans around him, he’s caught up in remembering and anticipating, and in the process, he’s started living life backward, the way we humans do the first time we call something by its name.