Grade: C

The animals are delightful but the humans a mostly wooden, disagreeable bunch in “Benji Off the Leash!,” Joe Camp’s attempt to revive the doggie franchise that spawned a litter of four movies–of decreasing quality–between 1974 and 1987. (By the time “Benji the Hunted” appeared in 1987, the series seemed pretty much exhausted.) The new picture isn’t the worst of the lot, but it’s far from the best either. Overlong, clumsily constructed and distinctly old-fashioned, it nonetheless has a disarming innocence and some moments of real charm. Unfortunately, they’re fewer and farther between than one would like.

This time around, the unnamed dog that eventually becomes the new Benji–a mixed-breed terrier adopted by Camp from a shelter in Mississippi–is introduced as a scraggly pup from the latest litter of a valuable dog kept by a cruel small-time breeder named Hatchett (Chris Kendrick). Hatchett’s young son Colby (Nick Whitaker) saves the unwanted puppy, keeping him in his secret clubhouse until he grows up, at which point Benji-to-be takes off on his own. Over the course of the film Benji assists another pooch, an abandoned mutt called Lizard Tongue by the local dogcatchers (Duane Stephens and Randall Newsome) and played by another adopted dog named Shaggy, in finding a new master–local eccentric Zacharia Finch (Neal Barth). He’s also instrumental in persuading Colby’s mother Claire (Christy Summerhays) finally to denounce, and leave, the abusive Hatchett. And, in the end, he’s selected by none other than Camp himself to play the title role in his new “Benji” movie–the very picture we’re watching.

So long as Camp sticks to Benji and Shaggy, his movie is, like them, endearingly scruffy. It’s rather a mess from a narrative standpoint–for the first hour or so the various sections seem thrown together arbitrarily, sequences run on far too long, transitions are nonexistent, the attitudes of various character change without warning, some characters disappear for long stretches without explanation, and entirely new ones (like Sheriff Ozzie, played by Nate Bynum) are introduced toward the close to wrap everything up. Still, the pooches are sufficiently lovable to keep kids, and adults with a soft spot for canines, reasonably happy when they’re onscreen. Unfortunately, too much of the running-time is devoted to the people. The ones who make the best impression, relatively speaking, are Stephens and Newsome as the slapsticky dogcatchers who turn out to have hearts of gold, and Barth as the kindly but very odd Finch (anybody who talks to himself this much, and to dogs too, might be thought unbalanced rather than merely peculiar). They all overplay radically, but it’s done in good humor. The real problem is with the Hatchett family. Father Hatchett is so mean and brutal from word one that it seems inconceivable that wife Claire would have stayed with him long, and even more so that she would have allowed her son to be subjected to such treatment. (Claire’s observation at one point that two parents are better than one is hardly a satisfactory explanation for her conduct.) It doesn’t help that Kendrick’s performance is so strident. Whitaker, on the other hand, seems a pleasant enough lad, but his stiffness is clear evidence of his amateur status.

Part of the actors’ difficulties come from the fact that “Benji Off the Leash!” is obviously a bare-bones production, made by Camp on a shoestring in order to avoid studio interference (particularly, it’s claimed, in terms of adding elements he considered inappropriate for a family film) and being distributed independently as well. One might dispute its success in this regard: the very first scene in which the Benji pup appears, in which the dog is actually thrown across a room by Hatchett, comes very close to being animal abuse, and the man’s later treatment of his family and dogs is very nearly as dark and unpleasant. But what’s certain is that the technical aspects of the picture, from the frequently haphazard camerawork to the often clumsy editing (a sequence in which the two dogs get trapped in a garbage can seems to go on forever), can’t help but have a negative impact on the performances. But Benji and Shaggy are unaffected by the limitations; indeed, the no-frills quality enhances the naturalness of the canine footage, which–as the final crawls indicate–had no help from special effects (unless you consider replacing a dog with a “stunt stuffed animal” at one point a special effect). By the way, though the picture runs well over ninety minutes, you’d be well advised to stick around for those closing credits; the outtakes are more amusing than much of what goes on in the actual movie.

It’s doubtful there’s any place in theatres for a little family movie like this one anymore, especially if it’s being released in an ad hoc fashion by the makers; in the seventies a “Benji” could become a word-of-mouth phenomenon (so did “Billy Jack” and “Halloween”), but nowadays without the big marketing blitz of a “Blair Witch Project” such pictures have very little hope in the megaplexes. On cable and DVD, though, they have a more accommodating venue, and that’s probably where “Benji Off the Leash!” will find a home. Anywhere you can fast-forward through the “human” interludes would seem ideal.