Where Have All the Lassies Gone?

What can you say about a family film in which the climactic turning point is when the father gets arrested?

True, the father, known only as Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), is a swine — an emotionally and physically abusive boor who not only bullies his spiritless wife Claire (Christy Summerhays) and sensitive 14-year-old son Colby (Nick Whitaker), but is also guilty of cruelty to animals. He's got a brutal puppy-mill operation in his backyard. In fact, Hatchett is so rotten that at one point Colby asks his mother, “Why do you stay with him? He doesn't love you.”

To this Claire can only offer rationalizations. “Two parents are better than one,” she says unconvincingly, adding, “Besides, we have to eat.” Claire goes on to speak wistfully of the degree she never finished and the career she never pursued, having believed (wrongly, obviously) that “my place is home with you.”

While Claire's foolish choice to be a stay-at-home mom and consequent lack of financial independence means that divorce is unfortunately out of the question, it also leaves it an open question, when Hatchett is finally arrested, how Claire and Colby will now eat. In this regard it may or may not be comforting to reflect that, realistically, Hatchett's offenses won't keep him off the streets long, and perhaps before long this dysfunctional family will be together again.

Aren't the Benji movies supposed to be about a cute, shaggy little white terrier running around performing canine heroics? Yes, and thanks to writer-director-producer Joe Camp, the creative force behind all the Benji films, Benji Off the Leash has two of them. This time out the little rascal has a cute puppy sidekick, variously called “Puppy,“ “Shaggy,“ and “Lizard Tongue.” Benji and Puppy are both portrayed by dogs who, like the canine stars of all the Benji movies, were rescued from animal shelters — an inspirational factoid that may be some consolation to viewers unlucky enough to suffer through this production.

Camp, who financed Off the Leash independently to avoid studio control, says he's proud to bring back Benji at a time of diminishing standards in family entertainment. And he certainly talks the talk: He says parents are “screaming for good and safe entertainment for their kids. Not stupid and safe. Not vacuous and safe. Good solid material that involves kids’ emotions with story and character, and perhaps leaves a residue of something positive. Something more meaningful than memories of someone rolling around in a pile of dog poop.”

I'm sure you'll be edified to hear that when the two buffoon-ish dogcatchers take a pratfall in a field, that's good clean mud they're rolling in, not dog poop. But when the dogcatchers appear in the next scene with immaculate uniforms and faces, it's clear that, despite its independent pedigree, Benji Off the Leash is as sloppily crafted as any big-studio product from the Hollywood family-film puppy mill.

There was a family film this year starring a pair of animals that nicely exemplified the virtues Camp talks about but woefully fails to deliver. It was called Two Brothers and it sank at cineplexes with hardly a ripple, though it is much better than Benji Off the Leash. Some families who saw Two Brothers found the tigers’ hard-knocks lives too stressful for young or sensitive children. They had better watch out for Off the Leash, which opens with Hatchett hurling an adorable puppy across the room, and largely centers on the plight of Puppy's overbred mother, who spends much of the film near death, too sick and dispirited even to move.

As Hatchett, Chris Kendrick succeeds in making his character so persuasively unpleasant and overbearing that he not only sucks all conceivable joy out of every moment he's on the screen, but also effectively poisons the rest of the film as well. His character exists in a different, darker film than pretty much everything else in Off the Leash, from the slapstick antics of the cartoonish dogcatchers, to a colorfully eccentric old codger who adopts one of the dogs, to Benji's over-the-top heroics.

I call the hero “Benji,” though Camp's latest canine star isn't actually playing the hero of previous Benji movies. In this movie, as in real life, “Benji” is not the name of a real dog, but of a film series about a fictional dog. The hero of Off the Leash isn't the Benji, but a nameless stray who, in the end of the story, gets cast as Benji in an upcoming movie.

This real-world setup makes a jarring contrast with the nameless pooch's clearly super-canine intelligence and skills, which are only found in movie dogs like Benji, Lassie, and Rin Tin Tin. Even before getting cast in the film, our stray is a one-dog humane society, rescuing abused animals, placing other strays in good homes, and much more.

Benji-to-be is so smart, not only can he rescue a puppy from two dogcatchers with a tranquilizer gun, but later he knows to turn to those same dogcatchers for help when a sick animal he's rescued needs attention. A dog that smart, why should he be playing a fictional dog hero? Isn't that kind of like getting a real super-hero to star in a comic-book movie? Why not just make a documentary about him instead? Why waste this kind of talent in Hollywood, when he could be making the world a better place?

Those questions may be moot, but here's one that isn't: Why, in the end, does Off the Leash conclude that Benji-to-be would be happier and better off working in Hollywood than in a loving home with Colby? Colby clearly loves the dog and wants to keep him — yet, in a stunningly phony climactic scene, he tells a Hollywood scout that the dog “has had a hard life” and “deserves something special,” and that he should have “a chance to be a star.”

First came Hidalgo and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, celebrating the bond between horses and humans by telling us that what our horses really want is to be wild and free. Now comes the world's first (and, please God, the last) dog movie that suggests that a dog would rather star in a movie than belong to a boy. Poor Lassie, wasting the best years of her life with Timmy when she could have been in pictures.

I applaud Joe Camp's principles. I deplore his execution. He is right that families deserve better than “vacuous and safe” pap. Vacuous and unsafe is not a step in the right direction.

Content advisory: Depiction of an abusive household including references to wife beating and child abuse; depiction of cruelty to animals in a puppy-mill operation; an instance of minced profanity.

Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.