Benji, the huggable hero who went on to traumatise an entire generation of kids (not to mention provoke one of the most heated exchanges of all time between Siskel and Ebert) with his 1987 film Benji The Hunted, starred in a curious variety of projects throughout his career, but none more mind-bendingly bizarre than this ABC special from 1981. It's such an eye-popping head trip that it makes Benji The Hunted (that freaky fable about a dog with a high IQ) seem entirely conventional by comparison. This special didn't feature in my own childhood, but if it had done, I'm pretty sure I'd be debating years later whether it actually happened or was simply the result of some abnormal neurological activity induced by consuming one Panda Pop drink too many. By all accounts, it doesn't feel real. Even when it's right there unfolding before your eyes, it's a challenge to contemplate that such a thing could ever actually exist. It's utterly bonkers from start to finish.
Note that, at this stage in "his" career (and indeed, for most of "his" career), Benji was played by a female dog named Benjean, the original Benji having passed away a year after release of the first Benji film. As with all Benji productions, the special was helmed by Joe Camp.
Benji (Takes a Dive) at Marineland first aired on ABC on 10th May 1981, and was later released on home video as part of the Children's Video Library range, along with another Benji special, Benji at Work. The special takes place at the Marineland aquarium in Florida, the major draw being that Benji has traveled there with the intention of becoming the first dog ever to scuba dive (or so we're told - I'm aware that people who take their dogs scuba diving are a thing, but I couldn't say with certainty if Benjean was officially the first dog ever to take up the practice). The big problem is that Benji only gets to scuba dive at the end of the special, and this doesn't yield more than a couple of minutes worth of footage. The special itself is twenty-two minutes long, so the obvious challenge Camp had was in how to fill up the remaining time. Talk a bit about the technical aspects of scuba diving and how you facilitate things so that a dog can accomplish it? Nah, that would surely bore the kids at home to tears. Give us some background information on the history and work of the Marineland aquarium? Sounds just a bit too conventional. Why not just throw some random nonsense together involving singing fruits, communist dachshunds and some of the cheapest, most grotesquely-rendered sock puppets you've ever laid eyes on? Ding-ding-ding, we have a winner!
That's right, there are singing fruits in this thing. Why? I have no idea. Don't ask me what Camp was smoking when he wrote this.
So Benji has gone to Marineland to become the first dog ever to scuba dive, and lurking in wait for him on the beach are the two puppets who'll be guiding us through this historic occasion: Lana Afghana, a mermaid variant who happens to be part fish, part Afghan hound, and Benji's "manager" B.W. Puggit, a Texan pug. These two are not a pretty sight. On the visual appeal metre, I'd place them squarely beneath the Feebles and the Huggas, but somewhere slightly above the Pipkins (that's the British puppet series, not the novelty duo). Their distinctly frugal, homemade quality (like they were cobbled together from whatever odds and ends Camp found lying around his basement) is already hard enough to bear, but what really pushes them into all-out nightmare territory are their awkward and highly distracting mouth movements. Lana's jaws flop about gracelessly in a manner that barely syncs up with her dialogue, and whenever Puggit speaks his entire snout breaks out into an unsightly collection of twists and wrinkles, almost as if his mouth is a vortex through which the rest of his face is frantically trying to escape. There's a running gag throughout the special where Lana repeatedly smacks Puggit with her fishy tail, either to fend off his unwanted advances (which is somewhat problematic from a modern perspective, but at least Lana remains wholly on top of the situation) or because of his tendency to waffle on self-importantly. Puggit informs Lana that Benji has volunteered to make the historic dive as a gesture to promote unity between the species, but when Lana interviews Benji first-hand, he "tells" her that he's in it purely for the fun of it.
Composer Jesse Davis (who had previously performed a song for Camp's 1976 film Hawmps!) then treats us to a calypso interlude featuring his back-up band, The Mulberry Squares, and that's where our musical fruit come in. The name "Mulberry Squares" is an obvious nod to Camp's production company, Mulberry Square Productions, although making the band into literal pieces of anthropomorphic fruit possibly carries the pun a bit far. Honestly, I can just about grasp of the relevance of having two canine sock puppets present a program about a scuba diving dog. It's silly, but it's cute (the idea that is, not the sock puppets themselves). I can cope with one of the dog puppets being part fish because of that whole aquatic connection. But it's when these singing fruit appear onscreen that the special truly betrays its intentions of dragging the viewer down the path of complete and utter absurdity. Like, what? What the devil is this, Camp?
The song that Jesse Davis and the Sausage Party Rejects are performing contains numerous refrains of the line, "I don't know, can a dog survive when he scuba dives?" On second thought, perhaps the singing fruit were added in an effort to distract kids from the unsettling insinuation that Benji might perish if his scuba diving adventure goes at all haywire. I get that the idea is to hype up how bold and adventurous Benji is for "wanting" to accomplish this amazing feat, but with all the emphasis they put on the indeterminate outcome they make it sound as if Benji is being used as some kind of test subject here.
The first signs of our paper-thin story thread finally surface when we meet our villain, a dachshund-type puppet named Boris Todeth. Most references I've come across to this special have Boris down as some kind of Nazi dog (presumably because of his militaristic uniform and German accent), but this being 1981 the Cold War was far more topical than Nazi Germany, so I suspect he's actually supposed to be a Soviet spy (and doing a bang up job of looking entirely inconspicuous if he is). Boris comments that he'll never allow a "western capitalist" dog to be the first at anything and sets about to sabotage Benji's mission by stealing his specialist equipment. We then get a short sequence in which Benji comes nose-to-nose with some dolphins at the aquarium and doesn't seem to like them much. Jesse Davis starts up with a reprise of his number, whereupon Benji finally tires of his discouragement and sends him hurtling into the dolphin pool.
Lana and Puggit are talking to Mareineland manager Cecil Walker (himself), who informs them he's invited several major newspapers and television networks to cover Benji's historic dive, but a number of them have questioned the authenticity of the event, some even suspecting it of being nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt. To determine the odds of this, Lana switches over to Jimmy The Beak, a bookmaker who happens to be a rather lopsided-looking bird puppet (as if there's something seriously off with his balance receptors). Jimmy muses that if it were actually possible for a dog to scuba dive then conventional wisdom might dictate that older celebrity dogs like Rin Tin Tin and Lassie would have accomplished it by now, but gives odds of 8/5 in favour of the dive being genuine on the grounds that it often pays to root for the underdog. Meanwhile, Boris learns that Benji's all-important custom-made diving equipment is being guarded by a shark and eventually manages to swipe it after feeding the shark sleeping pills (this does not occur onscreen, with Boris conveniently cackling about his dastardly misdeed for the audience's benefit, but perhaps that's for the best).
He then looks up and sees Benji "confronting" him from the wall of the tank (in actuality Benji doesn't look like he's paying much attention at all) and knocks him into the water (I'm not sure, but I don't think Benjean was expecting that to happen). As Benji scrambles for dry land, Boris finds Lana and announces that he, and not Benji, will be making the historic dive, then attempts to make a move on her. Repulsed, Lana smacks him with her fishy tail and sends the Stasi fleabag flying - whereupon he magically transforms into a rubber ring with ears. I'm not kidding, they literally dress up a rubber ring in clothing similar to Boris's and throw it to the dolphins to bat around for a bit. To call it hilariously shoddy-looking would be a serious understatement.
Benji gets up to a bit of water-skiing, while Boris manages to escape the dolphins and elude Benji on a skateboard (the techniques used to hold Boris on that skateboard are a lot better than rubber ring effects). Boris makes it to a platform above another tank and taunts Benji by announcing his plan to put on the diving gear there and then and dive in, instantly wrecking Benji's chances of being the first dog ever to scuba dive. Suddenly Lana appears and tosses a fish into Boris's mouth, prompting a dolphin to leap up from the tank below and grab the fish, dragging Boris down into the water with it and giving Benji the opportunity to retrieve his stolen diving equipment.
Finally, after all that madcap puppet filler, we get what we came here to see: Benji donning a helmet and oxygen kit and going for an underwater paddle. As far as I can tell, the footage of Benjean scuba diving is genuine, though it is interspersed with footage of sharks and other marine life that Benjean blatantly had no contact with in real life (which were presumably thrown in in the interests of adding more variety to the visuals). Jesse Davis performs another song and lingers around the underwater observation area with his fruit chums, but this sequence is very light on puppet antics, instead allowing the viewer space to marvel at the sheer beauty of Benjean's underwater movements. It's an extremely charming sequence; there's something about the gentle grace of that submerged doggie paddle that's just so wonderfully soothing to the spirit.
The special rounds off with a brief epilogue, in which Benji hops onto a boat with Jesse Davis and sails off into the sunset, as Cecil Walker and the assorted puppet characters bid him farewell from the beach and a close-up shot of Lana reveals a solitary tear rolling down her frugal felt cheek.
Remarkably, the moment where the dog puts on a scuba suit and goes for an underwater dive turned out to be most sensible aspect of this entire special. The rest of it is so hypnotically goofy it makes Goofy look like Pluto and, needless to say, you have to love it for that. There wasn't a massive amount of tonal consistency between the various projects Benji cropped up in throughout his career, but this one surely takes the cake for sheer, unabashed absurdity. It's hard to imagine any Benji adventure getting any stranger and more wildly surreal than this one.
...then again, there was that TV series where Benji was best buds with a WALL-E prototype and a kid from outer space. Well, let's consider these things one at a time.