Benji’s Back in a New Movie – Do Dog Flicks Still Work?

Benji, the canine star of an Academy Award-nominated film, will be brought back to life in a reboot tailored to young moviegoers, according to Variety. The dream is to find a suitable stray through a rescue organization, thus plucking a lucky young dog out of a pound and making him (or her) a star.

Brandon Camp, son of ‘Benji’ filmmaker Joe Camp Jr., will write, direct and produce. While he feels that the time is right for a reboot from "a business point of view," he insists that he’s most interested in bringing the story of a heartfelt "underdog" (his word, not ours) to the big screen. Flying in the face of (recent) conventional wisdom that has seen dogs most often portrayed by computers (‘Bolt’) or a combination of animal, computer graphics, and human voices (‘Cats & Dogs: Revenge of Kitty Galore’), the upcoming ‘Benji’ picture will be live-action. Can a movie about the "emotional journey" of a dog possibly work in today’s movie marketplace?

Dog movies have long been a storied tradition in Hollywood. Rin Tin Tin supposedly saved Warner Brothers from bankruptcy in the 1920s. Lassie became hugely popular in the 1940s and made a successful transition to a long-running television series the following decade.

The 1970s belonged to ‘Benji,’ movie-wise. Joe Camp Jr. wrote, produced and directed the first picture, raised the funding, and distributed it with a partner. The film ended up earning nearly $40 million in the U.S., and several sequels followed, most notably ‘Oh! Heavenly Dog’ with Chevy Chase. The original ‘Benji’ was a straightforward, sentimental tale, but it had one striking innovation, in that most of the movie was shot from the point of view of Benji, a perspective about 18 inches off the ground.

The last sequel, ‘Benji: Off the Leash’ was distributed independently and did not fare very well. However, Variety reports that a relaunch of the ‘Benji’ DVDs sold 1.2 million copies last year. The new picture will be produced in partnership with Walden Media, the folks behind the ‘Chronicle of Narnia’ franchise, so we can expect a very wide release and attendant publicity. It’s also likely that well-known actors will be cast in the adult roles to garner additional notice.

Still, the landscape for family films is far different today than in the 70s. Is there an audience for a movie starring a real-life dog that doesn’t sing or talk or fly through the air?

By Peter Martin