Rin Tin Tin, Lassie and Toto must be crying in their kibbles – while Old Yeller, Air Buddy, Marley, Otis and Hooch could well be howling at the moon in a blue doggie funk – about how their rival Benji, that mixed-breed mutt with a knack for being in the right place at the right time, is getting the Hollywood star treatment yet again.
More than 40 years after becoming one of the most beloved dogs in cinematic history, the clever little furball scamper's back this Friday with Benji, a Netflix global original film that brings another tale of the mutt.
For the price of a dog biscuit, Benji has been helping wayward humans solve their problems since 1974, when Joe Camp, the creator/trainer and director of the fictional four-legged phenomenon, shot his first Benji film. Since then, various tail-wagging pups have played the character in a dozen movies, a Saturday morning TV series (Benji, Zax & the Alien Prince), two documentaries on his celebrated life, and a 1983 sci-fi video game (Benji: Space Rescue).
While Camp, now 78, has put California in his rear-view mirror to enjoy retirement closer to his roots in Bell Buckle, Tennessee, his son Brandon is carrying on the family's Benji tradition as the writer and director of a new heart-warming tale that blends drama, humour and sweetness for a family audience.
"I literally was born into Benji," Brandon says with a laugh, recalling how his mother, Carolyn Camp, nearly gave birth to him on the set of the original film. "I thought one of the reasons Benji was so successful in the first place was because it wasn't loud or trying to be something that it wasn't; it was a simple story about a little dog with all the heart in the world. I wanted to retell that same story for modern audiences.
"Family-oriented movies that make you feel good are always powerful, but I think particularly when the world looks like it looks today, they're especially powerful," adds Jason Blum, the film's Emmy- and Oscar-nominated producer, previously known for Get Out, The Normal Heart and Whiplash. "I think the timing is very good in terms of introducing a new Benji to the world," Blum says.
Set in the heart of New Orleans, this incarnation of Benji tells the tale of a homeless, unwanted dog who befriends two children – and then does all he can to protect them. The Big Easy magic begins one day after school when young Carter (Gabriel Bateman, American Gothic) finds Benji on the street and forges a special bond with his new shaggy pal. He and his sister, Franie (Darby Camp, Big Little Lies), beg their mother Whitney (Kiele Sanchez, Lost) to let Benji live with them – but the last thing the poor single mom needs is another mouth to feed.
“The plot thickens when, unfortunately, Benji is cast out on the street, and our two kids find themselves in jeopardy,” reveals Camp. “Despite the fact that Benji is homeless and it looks like things might not work out with Carter and Frankie, he still does everything in his power to make sure that those kids are safe at the end of the day.”
Benji's protective instincts brave the ultimate test when a robbery goes wrong and the criminals, Syd (Will Rothhaar, Grimm) and Titus (Angus Sampson, Fargo) take the kids far from home. Little do they know that the cops – and especially the tenacious Benji – are hot on their trail.
“Really, the movie is about perseverance, following your heart, and never, ever giving up,” says Camp. “That was evident in the first movie, and I wanted to bring those simple values back into live-action moviemaking in a way that we just haven’t seen, frankly, since the original.”
One of the trickiest parts of bringing Benji back was finding and casting a canine that could melt a million hearts. Brandon Camp, the loving owner of a rescue dog himself, insisted the new Benji, like the original, must also be a rescue dog as well as a mutt – and he found his star abandoned in a grocery store parking lot. “I knew instantly when I looked into his eyes that was the next Benji,” he says.
One might think making another Benji movie would be a slam-dunk for Camp, but he ended having to make it independently, outside the system. Several of the Hollywood studios he approached insisted his movie be "hipper and more sarcastic" than the original, or animated, or have a bonus concept like "sending Benji into space".
But Benji’s magic stems from the purity of its heart and drama – not CGI, special effects or props – and Camp, infused with his family’s Benji DNA and pride of legacy, fought to make a simpler kind of film, just as his father did 44 years ago.
Although Brandon's mother died in 1997, he recently screened Benji for his dad, Joe, who gave his blessing. "The Benji phenomenon doesn't just continue; it has been elevated by Brandon's work," says Joe Camp.
“I must’ve hounded Brandon a thousand times with the story of how I always write and direct looking at everything as a member of the audience. And it must’ve stuck, because folks around the planet are going to fall in love all over again,” he says.
“I’m a very proud papa.”
Benji is available for streaming on Netflix from Friday