Benji (2018)

Benji became something of an important film character back in the 1970s and ’80s and remained in the movies until 2004, when his last film, Benji: Off the Leash!, was released. He was created by Joe Camp, who directed all of the Benji movies until now. Netflix, along with Blumhouse (yes, the horror studio) has decided to reboot the franchise—and they’ve hired Joe Camp’s son, Brandon, to write and direct. What a strange world we live in.

Like the previous films, the star is an adorable dog named Benji and the family whose kids want him and whose parent does not. Benji is a cute golden mixed breed who understands English and context better than most Movie Dogs, who are almost all smarter and better trained than real dogs to being with. Benji was orphaned and on the streets when he meets Carter (Darby Camp), brother and sister to a single mom (Kiele Sanchez).

The kids wind up as hostages after the robbery of a local store, and it’s up to Benji to save the day. Part of the fun of these sorts of movies is watching a very well-trained dog do things that no dogs will do unprompted. They’re the best actors here, and their roles are impressive but uncomplicated. See it perform parkour and open old-fashioned locks with keys and out-detective a detective—because why not? It gives kids a hero they can root for who doesn’t even need to speak English because its actions speak for itself. That plays well worldwide, doesn’t it? I see you, Netflix.

The dog is the only worthwhile part of Benji, anyway. There’s some family drama that’s poorly written and acted to the point that you won’t care about its themes about the importance of family. The dialogue is simple, largely unimportant, and filled with eye-rollingly awful lines—this is very much aimed at the 6-year-old crowd, not the teenagers. The humans sometimes resemble real people but more often than not feel like bland archetypes. And the story is silly, thin, and unbelievable, especially in the parts without our adorable dog protagonist.

With all that said, I propose the following question: Does any of that matter?

Seriously. You know what you’re watching this movie for and the movie knows why you’re watching it. It’s to watch the dog do awesome things and look cute while doing it. And it delivers on that aspect. While it may not be a good movie, it’s a good showcase for its lead performer. And since that’s the aspect it focuses on and wants to be about, can you really call it a failure? Not all movies are about the same thing or are successful for the same reasons. And Benji might be awful in most elements but does a good job in the one on which it focuses. Is that more important than the rest? Or is it bad anyway?

I guess it doesn’t matter. Benji is on Netflix, and it’ll be something that parents will put on for kids who like dogs. The parents might occasionally turn to the screen and see a dog doing cool things and smile. And that’s its job. That it fails as a movie is largely inconsequential, I guess. It’s got a ridiculous plot, thin characters, awful dialogue, and the thematic depth of a wading pool. But it also has a cute dog doing really impressive tricks. And that’s really all it needs.

Conclusion: Benji is a bad movie but it gets its central “cute dog does awesome tricks” part right.

Recommendation: Your kids like dogs and want to see a dog do cool things? Sure, put on Benji.

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