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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Benji (2018) is an updated take on 1974's hugely successful Benji, which spawned sequels and a merchandising bonanza. It's still about an adorable stray dog who's almost adopted by two kids until a reluctant parent disappoints them, and the kids are still abducted by sketchy criminals. But this time around, the drama and suspense are played for real. These villains, unlike those in many family-friendly pet stories, aren't comic buffoons: They're scary, menacing, and playing for keeps. It makes for a much better movie, but it certainly ups the stakes. Both the kids' and the dog's lives are threatened. They're chased, snatched, and held captive; they face a man with a hammer, make many narrow escapes, and are kept in line by a ferocious Rottweiler. (Spoiler alert: In one long scene, it appears that Benji has been killed.) Still dealing with the loss of their beloved dad, the kids are scared and distressed. Bottom line? It's best for kids who are completely comfortable with real versus pretend violence, and it's not meant for little kids, extra-sensitive ones, or those who will be disturbed by seeing a lovable animal and/or kids in jeopardy.
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What's the story?
Only one adorable pup escapes capture by an aggressive dog catcher as BENJI (2018) opens. The yet unnamed pooch makes a life in the country until, one fateful day, he "hitches" a ride into New Orleans. Now he's a city stray, staying alive by his wits and a few generous souls who help him out. What great fortune comes the little guy's way when he meets Carter (Gabriel Bateman) and Frankie (Darby Camp), a boy and girl still getting over the death of their dad. It's love at first sight between pup and kids. Their hard-working mom (Kiele Sanchez) is stressed, though always loving. Still, when she finds the newly christened Benji, who's been smuggled into the house, it's a no-go. Devastated and worried that his mom will consign the dog to the pound, Carter sets his new pet free. Unknown to any of them, the adventure is just beginning. Soon after Benji is escorted onto the rainy big-city streets, Carter and Frankie happen onto a robbery in process. They're taken by force by a pair of rough and desperate criminals. The only witness, other than the helpless store owner, is Benji. While the police and the kids' mom can't find a single clue as to where Carter and Frankie have been taken, Benji sets out on a wild and danger-filled journey to find them and get them home.
Is it any good?
If a super-delightful dog can be upstaged by super-delightful kids, it almost happens here in this remake, which has been made with care, conviction, and artistry. The original film had viewers besotted with the dog and the pastoral countryside that he inhabited; Benji's antics and his smarts took up much of the screen time. Benji (2018) has more story and more suspense and takes advantage of a vibrant New Orleans setting. Gabriel Bateman and Darby Camp are two gifted child actors who bring both realism and heart to their roles. Benji, the dog, is a miracle of personality, highly skilled editing, and great camerawork. Of course, there are still the requisite corny moments, which the music serves to enhance. And Camp seems to have a genuine knack for sentiment, so prepare to have your heart tugged, and often. Only appropriate for kids who won't be disturbed by some convincing suspense and danger to both the kids and the pup.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the violence in Benji (2018). Given the Benji movies of the past and the subject matter, did you (and your family) expect to have such real moments of suspense and danger? Why is it important to be aware of the impact of violence on kids, especially little ones? How does your family decide which movies are right for the kids in your home?
Think about the music used throughout the film. How did the songs heighten your emotional connection to what was happening on screen? Specifically, how did hearing "I Feel Love" (the Oscar-nominated song from the original Benji) and "Have a Little Faith in Me" make you feel?
If you saw the earlier (1974) version of Benji, did this remake live up to your expectations? In what ways? What, if anything, about this version surprised you? Are you looking forward to future Benji adventures? Why do you think so many remakes are being created? Can you see how a new movie such as this one capitalizes on the name-recognition of the Benji "brand" and broadens its potential audience?
- On DVD or streaming: March 16, 2018
- Cast: Gabriel Bateman, Darby Camp, Kiele Sanchez
- Director: Brandon Camp
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Superheroes, Adventures, Brothers and Sisters, Cats, Dogs, and Mice
- Character strengths: Compassion, Perseverance
- Run time: 87 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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