Los Angeles pet lovers.
By Lori Golden
Camp, the writer and director of the Benji movies, always had dogs, but it was his love of warm-hearted movies, specifically Lady and The Tramp, and not his love for animals, that inspired the first Benji film. “I wanted to create a movie with a dog that was a three-dimensional character, getting into the heart and soul of a real dog trying to solve real problems. That’s where it all began,” says Camp. “It’s more about making movies that leave people with a good feeling and good values. Benji and film seem to be a good medium for doing that.
Back in the ‘70’s it was much easier to get financing from the big Hollywood studios to make the kind of film that Camp envisioned. These days, however, things are quite different. While Camp could have acquiesced to get the big studio funding, he would have had to give up the creative control that is so important to him. That’s why he is encouraging all who appreciate positive, family-friendly entertainment to see the film (which opened August 20th) NOW! If the film does well he hopes it will send a strong message to the entertainment industry “to prove that not everyone is out to lower the bar of responsibility and drop to the lowest common denominator in order to enhance the bottom line. We have the opportunity to influence and affect millions of kids and to do it responsibly,” Camp says. “The machine-gun, fast pace, violence, and crude humor found in what kids are watching today is plainly not good for them. Add to that the desensitizing of kids to violence and respect for one another,” he adds, “and I fail to see how anyone can call it good. It’s just not necessary.”
Benji Off The Leash does tackle some very serious issues that are prevalent in today’s society. First there’s the story of the dog itself. “The Benji movies have all worked because the dog is a 3-dimensional character on a deeper level, and the plot itself is basically just the framework of the vehicle in which the struggle of the dog takes place. This is more or less the would have been, could have been, might have been story of her life when she was out on the streets. She was adopted from a shelter as was the first Benji, which resulted in millions of adoptions according to the American Humane Association. This is more or less her story that came out of her life. The questions that we ask are why would anyone ever abandon a dog like this in the first place? What was she doing out there? How long was she out there? What went on in her life? It became basically a story of heroes where she leads several others, both two and four-legged, into stepping up in their life beyond where they might think they can reach in order to make a courageous move to making something very important happen.”
“We also deal with the very serious and topical issue of puppy mills, but handled in a very discreet and layered way so that parents and older kids are getting the messages and the younger kids are having fun with the comedy and the dogs. The villain is a backyard puppy mill breeder… someone who is just purely breeding because he wants the bucks.
And it very heavily touches on animal abuse and even alludes to the connection of human abuse.”
Since I haven’t yet had the chance to see Benji Off The Leash, I share with you part of a review by Steve Dale, the host of Animal Planet Radio. “How many of you complain, there are no good movies for families... motion pictures great grandma can see without being offended and still kids will have fun watching? If I sound like a commercial, so be it. The new Benji flick is great. Best of all, there’s a message about puppy mills, about the link between spousal abuse and animal abuse. And - it’s a movie with a happy ending. I think we need a little of that now!”
The Search for BenjiOf course, the new movie never could have been made without the right dog in the leading role. The original Benji long ago crossed over the Rainbow Bridge, as did his beloved trainer, Frank Inn, who found him at the Burbank Animal Shelter. After that first film came out in 1974, the American Humane Association announced it had caused more than one million adoptions nationwide. So Joe Camp decided to mount a search in shelters all across the country to find a new Benji, who was ultimately adopted from the Humane Society of South Mississippi in Gulfport, Mississippi.
Camp explained that he was “looking for a dog that bore some resemblance to the original Benji character, with an independent personality. We needed the attitude and the demeanor. She needed to be the kind of dog that could have the confidence to deal with whatever comes. And she needed to have those big brown eyes that Benji is so famous for. When I met her I knew in ten minutes that I had found her, after 3 ½ months of searching. We actually adopted three dogs. Shaggy, one of the three (who came from Chicago,) ended up writing himself into the movie because he was the antithesis of Benji’s personality. He’s just a goofy dog and a whole lot of fun so he actually became the unwanted sidekick in the movie. The third dog we adopted from an LA Shelter is living a happy life with one of our producers.”
The picture on the cover was taken by Joe Camp ten minutes after he met Benji. “That tells the story as to why I knew she was the one,” he explained. “Here was a dog that had been on the streets for who knows how long… had been picked up by Animal Control… was brought into a shelter for two days… met a strange person… and had the demeanor, the attitude and the confidence to take that picture ten minutes after I met her. That pretty much sums it all up. One of the things you have to look for when searching for a dog like this is one that wants to do it. I pulled out a treat to see how quickly she would take to things and took a bunch of pictures to see if she looked as good in the pictures as she did laying on the floor, and it was just done.”
Benji, believed to be part Lhasa Apso and part Shit Tzu, was estimated to be about a year old at the time she was discovered.
It hasn’t all been a bed of roses for the new Benji, having recently undergone major eye surgery. In fact, she was sitting on Joe Camp’s lap on the way to the airport to see her eye surgeon when this interview was conducted. “She had a problem with her eye,” Joe explains. “She was squinting, so we went to a vet to check it out and discovered she had a cataract that had come on really fast. While seeing an eye surgeon in Atlanta for the cataract, it was discovered the retina had detached. Benji has some spaniel in her and this is a characteristic of the genetics of spaniels - that they can get cataracts apparently at any time. What was unusual was how fast and how strong the cataract came on. And I guess the inflammation from that and from the surgery is what caused the retina to detach.”
“She’s fine,” continues Joe, “and she’s just as good traveling below the seat in an airplane resting as she is sitting in a hotel room. She’s actually better off than if she was at home because we have three other dogs including her co-star in the movie, and they all love to romp and play, so at home she would have to stay in a crate to keep the activity down. It’s better that she’s traveling with me.”
Benji and Shaggy live together at Joe’s house and are good friends. The other animals there include “a 14 year old Yorkie who just puts up with other dogs but doesn’t seem to care much for them. There’s also an Australian terrier, two cats, three chickens and three kids. They all get along, except the dogs don’t socialize with the chickens.”
I wondered how Shaggy reacts when Joe and Benji hit the road to promote the film? “Shaggy, to be honest, indeed feels left out,” Joe answers. “He stands there wanting to get in the car. He wants to go too. But you have to see the movie to understand Shaggy. What you see is what you get. Shaggy is very high maintenance. Even when Benji is not feeling poorly she is absolutely no maintenance whatsoever. Shaggy is… everywhere.”
Benji’s Buddies ProgramIn my mind, the name Benji has become representative of a very specific kind of dog in its own right. Just as there is Kleenex for a tissue, Xerox for a copy machine, and now Google for an internet search, there is Benji, the adorable, fluffy, terri/cocker/lhasa/shit tzu - poo mix kind of dog with big brown eyes and a face that could melt a thousand hearts. Take a look at the photo of my own Maxx, ofMaxx’s Amazing Headlines in this publication. When asked what kind of dog she was, I always described her as a Benji – type dog.
“The thrust of The Benji’s Buddies program is to provide continuity of exposure through Benji media visitations, PSA’s, and paid advertising. To, in effect, actually brand shelter pets as Benji’s Buddies. It is hoped that whenever a family considers a pet, the Benji Buddy name will come immediately to mind, and will inspire a trip to the local shelter instead of to a backyard breeder or a pet store. Not only does that save the life of a homeless pet… it also eliminates the sale of yet another puppy produced for profit.”
“Now, whenever those big brown Benji adopted eyes appear in the media, money comes into shelters and pets are adopted,” explains Joe. “During the search for Benji, adoptions went up wherever we went. After Benji’s adoption in South Mississippi, that facility had the biggest month in its history, completely emptying the shelter. The sad side of this result is that a month or two later, once the exposure was gone and forgotten, it was back to business as usual with full shelters begging for adopters.”
I was curious as to why there is no mention of spaying and neutering in any of the publicity about the film or the foundation. It seems I’m not the only one to have questioned this as evidenced by Joe’s response: “Benji Buddies Foundation is going to be making a very heavy effort at getting dogs adopted and out of shelters and raising the adoption levels around the country. That, in itself, is making heavy inroad towards spaying and neutering, because every time a dog is taken from a shelter it is either already spayed or neutered or they demand that it be. And that’s one less animal out there in a home or on the street that hasn’t been spayed or neutered that came from a puppy mill or a pet store or something like that.”
“What we are trying to do is to focus very tightly on the specific issue that we can make a difference on. We know we can get dogs adopted because we’ve proven that Benji blitzing the media does that. What we need to do is to figure out how to keep it going so that once we leave, all of a sudden the adoption levels don’t go back to where they were. That’s the object of what we’re doing and that’s why the focus is so tight.”
“We’re very committed to Benji’s efforts to raise the level of adoptions around the country. The extent that we are able to do that will improve with every dollar earned at the box office. The bigger the star that Benji comes out of this experience… the more good Benji will be able to do down the road with Benji’s Buddies. If you care about those things AND if you want to see a fantastic movie, please get out there NOW to see Benji Off The Leash. We’re independent so we need your support now. We won’t have a chance down the line!”
(Benji Off The Leash will be available on DVD and VHS as of Dec. 28th from Amazon, Blockbuster and other locations. DVD Gift Certificates for the holidays are available now.)
First published in August of 1999, The Pet Press has become THE only local resource for
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