The best thing about the Benji films is easily the work of DP Don Reddy, who’s mostly been a journeyman camera operator since but ran the whole show for Camp. When Benji trots, the camera speeds alongside him on a rapid dolly. Similarly, the films of Argentinian arthouse master Lisandro Alonso (Los Muertos, Jauja) often rely heavily on long tracking shots of someone walking, with the camera’s pace determined by the subject’s. This is exactly the case with Benji, whose camera movements are precisely directed and timed to keep up with and showcase its canine star. Every moment filled with an overacting regional performer speaks to the production’s cash-strapped resources, but the movie does the one thing the audience wants: You get a full-on view of an incredibly well-trained dog, and the camera is always in the right place to showcase him.


Camp didn’t want to do a sequel, but his 1976 camels-in-the-army comedy—the indelibly named Hawmps!—didn’t do so hot, so he reluctantly went back to the well. 1977’s For The Love Of Benji is an improvement on its predecessor insofar as it takes place in Athens rather than small-town Texas, meaning the scenery is better. Benji’s human family goes on vacation, and the dog has to travel in cargo. In a weird, nearly giallo-esque scene, Benji (now played by Benjean, daughter of Higgins) is taken out of his cage, chloroformed, and given a mysterious imprint by a man in a cheap suit. (The scene is partially, creepily shot from Benji’s POV.) Otherwise, it’s more of the same: lots of Benji walking and hitting his mark, a lot of time-killing footage—people looking for lost luggage, etc.—and a complicated plot that’s barely comprehensible. The local actors don’t appear to be the best ones money could buy, and there are long scenes in Greek, bizarrely with no subtitles. At the end, when the plot is explained, the maid marvels that it sounds like a James Bond movie. “Except in a movie,” exposition man notes, “I’d be Robert Redford and you’d be Jacqueline Bisset”—a sad meta-acknowledgment of the charmless lot we’re stuck with instead.


Whatever non-dog charm the film has is in its very cruddiness: There’s time-capsule value in the original’s views of trapped-in-amber, last-picture-show Texas, and its sequel offers plenty of opportunities to see what a boxy airport looked like in 1977. Camp expanded the franchise to TV specials (there was a short-lived series in 1983 as well), then changed it up for the infamous 1980 follow-up, Oh Heavenly Dog. Where the first films bore the you-get-what-you-pay-for title card “A family film by Joe Camp,” Dog is a confused attempt to make the proceedings a little more adult. Benji is billed as himself, but the character is unnamed, instead serving as a vehicle for a Chevy Chase voice-over. Shamelessly cribbing from the recent Heaven Can Wait, Heavenly Dog has Chase as a private investigator in the U.K. killed while on the case; he’s assigned to a dog’s body by one “Mr. Higgins” (har har). This Benji is a literal horndog for Jane Seymour, who Chase meets as a human and pursues with canine avidity, leering at her and muttering “thank you” as he snuggles up to her breasts. At one point, he literally licks his lips while ogling a woman. There’s viler comic relief from Alan Sues as Chase’s flamboyantly gay partner, a bit of homophobic caricaturing that hasn’t aged well, and some oddly specific lampooning of the contemporary London art scene. It’s simultaneously unwatchable and rivetingly misconceived.

One problem Oh Heavenly Dog tried to solve was how to move the franchise forward without being weighed down by a connection to a narrative about a family no one could possibly care about. It’s understood we’re watching Benji, but he’s no longer a family dog: He’s a star of that name with no character name. 1987’s Benji The Hunted takes that logic even further. In the opening scene, a reporter tells us that the beloved dog was lost at sea in the middle of shooting his latest film. This is either an exceptionally sophisticated meta-way to reset Benji’s status—as a stand-alone icon rather than a family dog with a history—or just more of the same shoddy storytelling.


Inn appears as himself, broken up but convinced Benji will be okay. Cut to the dog paddling in to the beach, sodden but heroic. Benji The Hunted is, in relative terms, the best of the bunch, partially because it jettisons human characters almost entirely, acknowledging that viewers really have no use for them. Instead, Benji becomes the adoptive father of a group of baby cougars, who are really weird looking, closer to the animatronic baby velociraptors in Jurassic Park than anything from the mammalian kingdom. Being a parent means about a billion overhead shots of Benji running back and forth through the forest: fetching food, staring down various animals, etc. This adoptive parent scenario also places the movie in a weird narrative bind. Since the cougars are carnivores, they need meat, and a rabbit soon emerges. In possibly the single least realistic display of animal behavior in cinematic history, a rabbit emerges and Benji chases it down, only to back off when confronted by its quivering little nose. The animal’s just too cute to kill! Good thing the one isolationist in the woods already has some dead chickens hanging from a line. Since they’ve already been killed, Benji can steal them without losing his lovability.


Seventeen years would pass until the final Benji movie. During that gap, the family-film circuit got a tad glossier, leaving little mass theatrical release room for Camp’s cost-conscious methods and absolute lack of interest in production values. The ’90s saw the arrival of two new big dogs—Beethoven and the admirable Air Bud—both of whom spun off into direct-to-TV franchises that, improbably, are still going. So even though the world wasn’t crying out for the return of Benji in 2004, that’s exactly what it got. Benji: Off The Leash! is a comparative anachronism, and the meta-levels of who Benji is, exactly, reach new highs and lows. Hatchett (Chris Kendrick) is a tyrannical dog breeder who doesn’t care about the health of the dog’s mother; when she produces a mutt after rutting with somebody else, he tries to get rid of it. Instead, Hatchett’s son Colby (Nick Whitaker) rescues and hides the dog, which grows up to be predictably adorable, and, in a meta-twist, is cast as the “new Benji” in a movie that never got made (perhaps the one we’re watching?). In a Beethoven’s 2nd-esque subplot, two bumbling fools from animal control try to capture the mutt and bust the rogue breeder. You know what to expect: lots of falling down into the mud, tranquilizer darts meant for dogs ending up in someone’s rear, etc.

The best part of the film is the end credits, when behind-the-scenes video shows how this final Benji was actually coaxed into action. The heavy pro-shelter, anti-animal abuse thread reflects Inn’s longtime conviction that the best, most trainable animals could be found in shelters; in its maladroit way, it’s an entirely earnest piece of proselytizing. But the mass-release market for dirt-cheap, small-town family fare of this kind had passed, and Off The Leash! came and went quietly. Camp has subsequently reinvented himself as a horse rancher and author of related books (The Soul Of A Horse), retiring from the family film genre he briefly dominated. Benji himself is now a piece of pop-culture ephemera: Not a syndication staple totem to be passed down from one bored generation sitting in front of the TV to another, but the dog that time forgot. That’s a just response to a cycle of lousy movies, but take a few minutes at least to appreciate the opening credits of the first film. Like the first three movies, it opens with a song—“I Feel Love,” sung by country star Charlie Rich—and it’s shockingly pleasant. That’s all you need. The rest is just trotting.

Final ranking:

1. Benji The Hunted

2. For The Love Of Benji

3. Benji

4. Benji: Off The Leash!

5. Oh Heavenly Dog