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Customer Review

I have wanted to review this 1973 family classic for a very long time now, but it has been extraordinarily difficult to review something and someone who was a truly vital part of my childhood. Some of my earliest memories are of this loveable little dog. When the 25th anniversary edition of the film came out in 1998, I finally had the chance to reacquaint myself with my dear old friend, and it was a truly moving experience. All these years later, Benji remains the ultimate family movie experience. It can be quite a sad and touching experience, as well, and my emotional attachment to it has kept me from reviewing it for far too long already. The children (and adults) of every generation need to be acquainted with this film; Benji is the great American dog who has rightly been called America's Most Huggable Hero. I absolutely treasure this film from my childhood, and I want all children to feel the love this movie expresses and epitomizes.
The story of this movie is almost as extraordinary as the film itself. Everybody laughed at Joe Camp when he described the movie he wanted to make. This man who had never even made a movie or worked with animals before was committed to writing, producing, and directing a film told from the viewpoint of a dog. There would be no dubbed voices telling the audience what the dog was thinking; the dog himself would communicate his feelings through his demeanor and facial expressions. Even Frank Inn, Benji's owner, thought the idea was crazy when Camp came to him looking for a dog who could act. It just so happened, though, that Camp spotted Benji and immediately knew he had found his star. Benji was already an older dog who had retired from a distinguished seven-year career on the television show Petticoat Junction. Frank Inn, the man who had rescued Benji from the pound many years earlier, didn't know it, but Benji's greatest performance was yet to come.
In a way, the story of the movie is rather simple. Benji is a stray who is loved by folks all over the neighborhood, yet the place he calls home is a lonely, abandoned house. Every day, he follows the same routine: he first heads to the Chapman house to be fed and loved by young Cindy and Paul (whose father will not allow them to keep a stray dog), then he is off to chase a neighboring cat (whose owner is played by Frances "Aunt Bee" Bavier), wake up old Bill (Petticoat Junction buddy Edgar Buchanan) at the café, entertain a police officer, and rummage for food in the park. One special day, Benji meets a cute little white dog in the park, and the two of them become inseparable. Then disaster strikes; Benji's home is invaded by strangers who kidnap Cindy and Paul and hold them hostage there. Benji goes all over town trying to tell his human friends where the children are, but no one will listen to him. If he is to save the children he loves as well as his new friend Tiffany, he is going to have to come up with a way to make the humans understand him.
The last twenty minutes of this film are among the most powerful cinematic moments I have ever witnessed. Benji turns in one of the greatest performances of all time. Laugh if you will, but I consider Benji's performance one of the ten greatest performances of all time - that includes human as well as animal actors. Two scenes in particular reveal the depth of Benji's acting skills. I cannot describe what happens here without giving away important plot details, but it sends tears pouring down my cheeks no matter how many times I watch it. You can literally read Benji's thought process and intense emotions on his face. While it may not be manly to admit, I actually sob during these climactic scenes. To be honest, I cry many times throughout this movie. I am one of those people who love animals more than people, really, and I can't stand to see an animal sad or hurt. Benji's loneliness at the beginning of the movie touches me deeply, and his joyful relationship with his new little friend Tiffany moves me beyond words. The later scenes, though, include one traumatic moment that almost breaks my heart when it happens.
Obviously, I could sing praises to Benji all day. This is one of the greatest movies of all time; there really is no other movie like it. Joe Camp succeeded fabulously in telling this story from Benji's point of view. Even the most minor human characters express feelings that go far beyond mere words, and the music, while certainly evocative of the early 1970s era, complements and intensifies every scene perfectly. (The theme song I Feel the Love, sung by Charlie Rich, won a Golden Globe award and was nominated for an Academy Award.) In closing, I must mention the fact that Benji was as much a hero in real life as he was in this feature film. This vintage American "mutt" whom Frank Inn rescued from an animal shelter as a puppy really left an impressive mark on this world. He and owner Frank Inn literally toured the world, bringing joy to untold numbers of children. More importantly, he indirectly saved the lives of thousands of dogs waiting and hoping to be adopted from animal shelters. I love Benji as if he were my very own dog; he was a ray of sunlight in my childhood and he remains a true hero to me still. I dearly hope that today's children can get to know and love this dog and this movie as much as I do.
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