“Momma won’t let you stay,” the little boy Carter (Gabriel Bateman) pleads. It’s raining as he ditched the dog in a dingy alley, but you can’t tell from all the tears. “Please go.”
“I love you, Benji.”
That’s all you need to know about this new installment in the world’s most sentimental doggy film series. He’s orphaned as a puppy — Mean Old Dog Catchers — is adopted and ditched in New Orleans. Then the kids who can’t keep him walk in on a robbery at Mr. Sam’s ( Gralen Bryant Banks) pawn shop where paramedic mom (Kiele Sanchez) pawned their late father’s watch. A kidnapping ensues.
And wouldn’t you know? The danged dog sprints to the rescue!
Brandon Camp takes over the Benji Family Business from his father, Joe Camp, who directed all the earlier installments, beginning with 1974’s sleeper hit of the same title. Darby Camp plays Carter’s little sister Frankie, and Lucy Camp plays a cop.
Brandon adds nothing new to the Benji formula — a few “Awwws,” the occasional canine stunt (nothing too strenuous save for a Rottweiler chase), tears and “thrills” aimed at your average six year old.
Will Rothhaar and Angus Sampson ably play the drawling, tattooed heavies, guys who haven’t thought through their robbery or the kidnapping that results from it. And they sure and shootin’ haven’t reckoned on the wily mutt’s ability to outfox them and their danged one-eyed Rottweiler.
Rothhaar’s bleach blond Syd coos “Little doggy, come out to PLAY-yay.” Bad guys love to quote “The Warriors.”
The dog? He steals hot dogs to feed the homeless (dogs) with. He can raise a pooch posse. He can unlock doors with a key. (How do I train mine to do that?) He can follow a trail of strawberries.
New Orleans makes a colorful setting for this pedestrian reboot, with just a hint of the city — the Big Muddy, streetcars, street jazz, parading gris gris flingers — to give it texture. Bullying is a subtext, as it is in most every kid’s movie these days.
What little humor there is comes from canine slapstick (limited) and the police detective’s (Jerod Haynes) interactions with the dog.
He needs an all points bulletin — “Suspect is brown, about 35 pounds.”
He’s following the dog’s clues. “Do I LOOK like I need puddin’?”
“You’re talkin’ like that DAWG is smart’n the police.”
The soundtrack’s worth noting here too, venturing from New Orleans jazz to Cat Stevens’ “I Love My Dog” and John Hiatt’s soulful “Have a Little Faith in Me.”
We put a lot of effort into sparing our kids a little fear and a few tears in their movies. This one, following that pre-namby-pamby 1974 film’s formula, remembers that there’s no excitement without a little menace, and that tears are OK, so long as you earn them.
There’s little that’s surprising for anybody over the age of 10, and any threat to resolve things too quickly is interrupted — of course — by fresh obstacles. Mom is a bit torn up by her missing kids, but is still going to work. The kids? We don’t fear for them — much.
The action takes a quick turn for the preposterous and the bleak in the finale. But fear not. Just break out the Kleenex, parents. And not just for yourselves.
MPAA Rating: unrated, but worth a G, of course.
Credits: Written and directed by Brandon Camp, based on the 1974 Joe Camp film. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:27