In my review of When The Wind Blows, I made some reference to Benji The Hunted being the film that killed off what remained of my childhood innocence after The Snowman had already left it slashed and beaten within an inch of its life. Certainly, I think it's fair to say that I was never quite the same person again after being subjected to Benji and his eye-popping misadventures in the American wilderness. If The Snowman opened my eyes to the sadness of the world, the fragility of life and the inevitability of death, then Benji The Hunted widened my scope on all of those things and also awakened to me to what a painfully cold and brutal place the world can be, particularly when you're small, defenceless and out on your own in the woods. I have my mother to thank for renting the VHS when I was a small child, having seen the unassuming cover with the cute dog and fuzzy baby cougar snuggled up together and jumped to the conclusion that this would be a totally innocuous method of pacifying her sensitive, animal-loving kid for eighty-odd minutes on a weekend afternoon. She no doubt regretted it when she later had to contend with me coming to her in floods of tears because of what happened to the baby cougar's mother. This movie rattled me like crazy and, needless to say, will always hold a special place in my heart for it.
Benji The Hunted was the fourth theatrical film in a series created and directed by Joe Camp, which began in 1974 with Benji, an unassuming family flick that played a vital role in helping to restore commercial credibility to the G-rating, at the time regarded as "box office poison". Audiences warmed to the titular mongrel, who packed all the heart of Lassie into a considerably shorter stature, and over the coming decade a variety of sequels and spin-offs were spawned. Benji was originally played a dog named Higgins, although he passed away a year later and the role was subsequently filled by Higgins' daughter, Benjean, who starred in the films For The Love of Benji (1977) and Oh! Heavenly Dog (1980) along with a handful of television specials. Benji The Hunted, the only Benji film to be released by Walt Disney Pictures, was the swansong of Benjean's career, and also the last Benji film for quite some time (Camp revived the series, briefly, with Benji: Off The Leash in 2004). Higgins and Benjean were both trained by celebrated Hollywood animal trainer Frank Inn, who makes a few fleeting appearances as himself in Benji The Hunted. In the film's opening scene, we're informed by a news reporter (Mary Beth McLaulin) that the canine superstar has been lost at sea while filming for an upcoming movie off the Oregon Coast and Inn, convinced that the hardy mutt has survived and made it to land, announces his intention to begin a helicopter search for him the following morning. Benji's being lost and Inn's efforts to locate him initially look as if they're going to provide the basis for the entire plot but, past that opening sequence, the human rescue effort takes a backseat and forms only the vaguest of backdrops to the real substance of the story, which involves Benji caring for four baby cougars after their mother is killed by a hunter (Red Steagall). Whenever Inn and his helicopter appear, it's either as an intrusion upon this natural wilderness or as a temptation that Benji must resist (if he returns to his life of domestication then who will look after those helpless baby cougars?). Humans in general have a very minimal presence throughout the film and, aside from that opening and a couple of instances where Benji crosses paths with Steagall's hunter, it's almost entirely dialogue-free. No twee Rex Allen-style narration, no tacky, awkwardly-imposed celebrity voice-overs (sorry, but I'm no fan of the Homeward Bound movies), just mountain upon mountain of engrossing animal photography. This is not to say that Benji The Hunted handles its wordlessness with total deftness, but it does make for a more interesting viewing experience than a large bulk of Disney's live action output.
Obviously, a live action Disney flick about a dog who gets lost in the woods and babysits a litter of orphaned cougar cubs was never likely to register as high art, and it's fair to say that Benji The Hunted received a mixed reaction at best. Roger Ebert infamously awarded the film a "thumbs up", although many, Gene Siskel included, were inclined to single this out as being the low point of his reviewing career - there's a joke in an episode of The Critic where Siskel mocks Ebert by reminding him that he gave Benji The Hunted a glowing review, a jibe that appears to embarrass Ebert, for he immediately goes on the defensive: ("Hey, you liked Carnosaur!"). Halliwell's Film Guide, meanwhile, describes the film as a "freaky fable about a dog with a high IQ", which is entirely apt and probably my favourite concise plot synopsis of anything ever. It goes without saying that realism isn't exactly high on Benji The Hunted's list of priorities, and we get a number of scenes where Benji solves problems using lateral thinking that would surely make him a super-genius among dogs (for example, he figures out that he can prevent a particularly troublesome cub from escaping through a crack in a den by blocking it with a pile of stones). Such moments may be absurd, but they're also played with a kind of quirky charm that defies even the most cynical of viewers not to smile.
At first glance, Benji might strike one as a bit too soppy for life in the woods, but nope, Benji's remarkable heart, much like his remarkable brain, is nothing to be sniffed at. Benji's kindness and devotion toward those baby cougars forms the soul of the film and, even if it is nestled beneath a thick layer of general all-round hokiness, it ends up being surprisingly moving. You care deeply about these cougars (in fairness, it would be impossible not to care about something so wretchedly adorable) and Benji's unwavering compassion ultimately feels like a force of good prevailing in a world dominated by indifference and brutality. Projecting morality onto the natural kingdom is always a tricky business, and the film can be a bit patchy in that regard (see below), but Benji's interactions with the cougars do provide the basis for a lovely moral fable about the power of compassion and of taking responsibility for those in need. His goodness is not infallible - a particularly heart-breaking scene occurs when Benji is momentarily distracted by the reappearance of the helicopter and an eagle takes the opportunity to seize and make off with one of the baby cougars (something else to keep in mind if you have particularly sensitive children). This the last we see of that particular cub; Benji is unable to save it, and the agony of his failure is overwhelming. It's a horrifying moment, but extremely effective in underscoring the fragility of life out in the wilderness and how letting one's guard down only fleetingly can lead to tragedy.
Where the film falters is in its efforts to work in a recurring antagonist, a sort of four-legged antithesis to the inherent sweetness that Benji represents. Although Red Steagall is responsible for the death of the mother cougar, he's not the villain of the story and when Benji encounters him a little later on he's played up as a surprisingly benign figure. Instead, our major source of menace throughout the movie is a black timber wolf who gets it into his head that Benji and the cougar cubs might be an easy meal and stalks them tenaciously as they make their way across the wilderness. Unfortunately, he fatally underestimates (literally, by the movie's end) just how freakishly, fiendishly high that IQ of Benji's is, as the tricky mutt uses lateral thinking to outwit him and send him packing on numerous occasions. The wolf is frankly a bit dumb for not figuring out that Benji's extreme smarts make him more trouble than he's worth; nevertheless, he gets closer to the cougars with every try, until finally Benji's goodwill toward his fellow creature gets temporarily burned out and he resorts to bumping the wolf off by tricking him into jumping off a cliff. Ultimately, you end up feeling a bit sorry for the poor wolf as he goes hurtling to his death. It's not exactly his fault that he's a predator, and the film's attempts to project a sense of morality upon the happenings of the woods are at their utmost weakest whenever he's involved. Of all the deaths in the movie, the wolf's is the most gratuitous and mean-spirited but it's by far the silliest-looking too. The manner in which he dies is visually very reminiscent of something out of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, and it's topped off by having him let out this incredibly hokey-sounding howl as he falls. Horrifying though it is, I find it near-impossible not to laugh whenever I watch this particular scene.
Eventually, Benji figures out that there's another mother cougar in the woods with a single cub and attempts to bring the two families together in an effort to get her to adopt the orphaned cubs. I'm not sure quite how realistic this scenario is - would a mother cougar really be inclined to take in babies that aren't carrying her own genes? - but perhaps we're supposed to read her only having one a cub as an indication that she's been through a few losses herself and is looking to fill the void. Once again, to be a bit too nitpicky about realism would be somewhat out of the spirit with this kind of film. The mother cougar proves entirely obliging and gives us our happy ending, enabling Benji to woof his goodbyes to the cubs and finally come out of hiding when Inn's helicopter next appears. The film stops just before the long-anticipated reunion between Benji and Inn, but then that was never really what this story was about.
Getting back to Siskel and Ebert, the actual contention between the two on Benji The Hunted seemed to come down to whether or not it's reasonable to judge a children's film by different standards to a film aimed at adult audiences - I notice that Ebert, while defensive of the film, is frustratingly coy on admitting whether or not he genuinely liked it as an adult or if he's just taking the "well, it wasn't really made for me" stance. Myself, I can see eye-to-eye with both critics - Benji The Hunted is by no means a perfect film; nevertheless, I love it dearly and make no apologies in citing it as one of my all-time favourite guilty pleasure movies. Unlike Siskel and Ebert, I had the luxury of being introduced to Benji The Hunted as a small child, so I've no doubt that a good chunk of my affection for it is wrapped up in nostalgia (albeit a tad ironically - this film upset the living snot out of me, after all), although there's still plenty of stuff in there that I can admire and recommend as an adult, and I think that Ebert is correct in singling out the nature photography as being particularly worthy of praise. Where Benji The Hunted is at its strongest is where it trusts the charm of its animal cast and the beauty of its natural photography. The imagery itself is variable - some of the scenes with Benji climbing up a mountain were blatantly filmed in a studio set with a cardboard backdrop, others are absolutely breathtaking - but overall it's a really lovely-looking film. At times we get fleeting glimpses of wild animals who have no real purpose in the story other than to romp around and look enchanting - deer, ferrets, foxes, owls and raccoons - creatures who are neither friend or foe to Benji but simply there to add the natural ambience and create a sense of a hidden world rich with all varieties of life. Unfortunately, the film doesn't get the tone of this entirely right; one its biggest flaws is its over-reliance on Betty and Euel Box's somewhat incongruous score, which is meant to spell out the mood of each sequence and ensure that we pick up on what's funny and what's threatening, but serves to suck the subtly out of a number of scenes and undermine that natural ambience, and consists largely of generic, AC pop-style melodies on top of that. I find myself deeply appreciative of the smattering of moments which use no music and instead trust the understated simplicity of the natural soundscapes to set the tone - they're precious, but much too brief.
The most noteworthy portion of the score is a Jan Hammer-esque theme that appears in some of the more action-y chase sequences and is pretty catchy, but still feels as if it would be better suited to a late night detective drama than to a Benji film. It's in this emphasis on high-adrenaline chase sequences that I find myself siding with Siskel - there are simply too many of them, and their hectic, ham-fisted energy detracts from what's fundamentally quaint and charming about the story. The film is at its best when it's happy to leisurely and gentle, with occasional flashes of harrowing brutality (eg: the eagle sequence) to underscore the daily battle for survival that's really taking place against this beguilingly whimsical backdrop; when it embraces the sweetness and melancholy of its central scenario and doesn't get too caught up in trying to be fast-paced and exciting. Benji The Hunted can be a very muddled and hackneyed film in places, but I'd argue that ultimately it's the sweetness, the sadness and the whimsy which win out. It has a heart of gold (except where that unfortunate wolf is concerned) and an endearingly quirky spirit, and I can certainly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good, unpretenious backwoods yarn. Though keep in mind that it will totally scar the sensitive, animal-loving nippers in your family for life.
On a final note, I've harped on about how horrible and upsetting the deaths are in this movie, and while they are very shocking in the context of the story, I can at least watch them with a clear conscience as, having studied them closely, I'm fairly confident that no animals were ever placed in any actual peril and that they were all the result of visual tricks and skillful editing. Sadly, I can't say the same for a number of older Disney animal pics which seemed benign enough in my childhood, and which make me feel so uneasy now that I find them damned near-unwatchable. (The Incredible Journey, I'm looking at you...)