Is it really a dog-movie if it fails to make us cry? Throughout the years, cinematic portrayals of the unbreakable bonds between humans and dogs have, without fail, included a moment or two — if not an entire plotline — dedicated to tugging at audiences’ heartstrings. “Benji” is no exception. The most recent of numerous adaptations of the original 1974 picture, this 2018 remake is proof of the perception that the storyline of a loyal dog and an endangered human companion is timeless. Though the instances of innocent cuteness in “Benji” will illicit more than a few “aww” reactions from viewers, the unexceptional characters and predictable plotline make everything else in the film come off rather dull.
Consistent with its predecessors, the storyline that “Benji” adheres to is fairly simple. Two spirited and independent middle-school-aged siblings, Carter (Gabriel Bateman, “Lights Out”) and Frankie (Darby Camp, “Big Little Lies”), find a stray dog on the New Orleans city streets, forming a special bond with their newfound friend and naming him Benji. Matters escalate quickly, however, when a robbery occurs while the kids are visiting a local pawn shop, a place they frequent in hopes of purchasing back their deceased father’s old watch. Carter and Frankie find themselves victim to a robber’s stupidity, which transforms a plain, economically-driven act of theft into a full-blown kidnapping. One of the only witnesses to the incident, despite his being a dog and an inferior to the — ironically — consistently clueless adults around him, Benji must lead the mission to save Carter and Frankie and prove his loyalty and devotion.
The shining moments that emerge from “Benji” are not those that add to the forward momentum of the plot, which becomes quite foreseeable within the first 30 minutes of the film. Given the repeated remakes that this storyline has undergone, without significant adjustment to plot, character or tone, it can be surmised that director Brandon Camp’s intentions are not to shock audiences or push boundaries. Instead, “Benji” finds another way to grab viewers’ attention by evoking pity on Benji’s behalf. The interspersing of sequences that show an unwanted Benji trotting along with sad eyes and a hunched back are especially effective in puncturing even the coldest of hearts, warming any viewer up to the canine protagonist and giving viewers a reason to connect with the events unfolding on the screen before them.
In the opening sequence, audience members observe in distress as Benji’s mother and littermates are discovered by a dog-catcher, locked up and taken to the pound, leaving puppy-Benji helpless and alone. Stunned with pity for Benji, it becomes virtually impossible for viewers not to emotionally gravitate towards and invest in the poor, lonesome puppy before their eyes. Thus, even once the main, uninventive plotline of the film kicks in, audiences find themselves rooting for the rescue of the detained children, not out of complete, genuine concern for Carter and Frankie’s fate, but rather out of a desire for Benji to finally find the home and the love that he has been searching for.
Empathy felt for Benji’s pure intentions of finding a family aside, viewers cannot help but impatiently await the arrival of the end of the film, an end that from the start, was far too obviously set-up to be a happy one. Though audiences are blatantly aware of where the children are and how to find them, “Benji” proceeds to include segments in which the authorities take stabs at detective work, attempting to solve a mystery that audiences already know the answer to for what feels like a painfully boring and frustrating eternity.
What is fundamentally problematic with “Benji” is that, though it is able to evoke temporary emotional responses from audience members, that is all it is able to do. The mixture of pity and hope that moviegoers experience simply is not enough to sustain attention-spans for the duration of the film. Unlike contemporary dog-movie genre flicks such as, “Marley and Me,” “Hatchi” and even “A Dog’s Purpose,” “Benji” is not a film that can be thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. Though younger audience members will almost certainly find entertainment through this family-friendly adventure, no amount of commiseration or desire for redemption for “Benji” can induce any viewer beyond the age of 10 to ignore the tedious nature and severe lack of imagination that “Benji” possesses.