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Benji the Hunted DVD Review

Benji the Hunted movie poster - click to buy from MovieGoods.com Benji the Hunted

Theatrical Release: June 5, 1987 / Running Time: 89 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Joe Camp

Cast: Red Steagall (Hunter), Frank Inn (Himself), Nancy Francis (Newscaster Mary Beth McLaulin), Joe Camp (TV director's voice), Steve Zanolini (Producer's voice), Karen Thorndike (Countdown voice), Ben Vaughn (Engineer's hand), Mike Francis (TV cameraman)

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Upon bursting onto the film scene in 1974, the dog known simply as Benji quickly became one of the box office's biggest independent movie draws, as his self-titled debut ended one of the year's top grossers. The mixed-breed terrier (well, actually his daughter) was soon signed for a follow-up, 1977's For the Love of Benji. Needless to say, subsequent offers came left and right. Benji appeared in four half-hour television specials on ABC over the next few years (including "Benji's Very Own Christmas Story") and removed any doubt that he had made it in Hollywood when he got to star alongside Chevy Chase (as well as Jane Seymour and Omar Sharif) in Oh Heavenly Dog (1980).
In 1983, Benji took to television, headlining a CBS series with a robot and an alien prince called "Benji, Zax & The Alien Prince." Then around the time that Bill Murray was taking time off following the success of Ghostbusters, Benji left the scene for a couple of years.

Before Mr. Murray could make his big screen return with Scrooged (for the purposes of this analogy, we'll ignore the Little Shop of Horrors cameo), Benji was already back in top form for a fourth feature-length outing. This one was titled Benji the Hunted and distributed theatrically by Walt Disney Pictures in the summer of 1987. In this installment, as a news reporter's typically theatrical broadcast at the beginning of the film alerts, celebrity canine Benji has gone missing around the coast of Oregon following the capsizing of his owner's fishing boat. It turns out that both owner and dog are just fine, but they remain separated for the entirety of the movie. This leaves a reunion as our ultimate goal, but our attentions lay squarely with Benji and more pressing matters that arise for him on his own.

Benji leads his orphaned cougar cub wards around in the scenic Pacific Northwest. Aw, look at the cute little wild kitties!

A cougar, the first animal that Benji lays his eyes upon after finding safety in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, gets killed by a hunter early on. With a gentle guiding bark and a knack for survival, Benji thoughtfully becomes a surrogate father to the cougar's four young cubs. This is about as much as Benji the Hunted offers in the way of plot. The resourceful dog and tiny cubs must survive the mountainous wilderness on their own. Prolonging this adventure, Benji repeatedly eschews his owner's helicopter search and rescue efforts to protect his charges from the perils of wildlife, which include a big brown bear, a persistent timber wolf, an eagle, and a rugged outdoorsman.

Almost all of what ensues is free of human dialogue (or humans, for that matter), making Benji demand more patience from young viewers than typical family fare. Furthermore, very little is explicitly spelled out, which leaves the film likely to confuse or bore the little ones it is aimed at. It is definitely lacking the human drama of other dog films that are more fondly remembered (like Old Yeller) and obviously comes without the narration of The Adventures of Milo & Otis and voiceovers of Disney's 1990s Homeward Bound
movies, neither of which would be true to the Benji movie form. Though tense and involving moments are to be found, like a tied-up Benji's showdown with a lurking wolf, dry spells and mild repetition don't seem to do too much for viewers young or old, especially those with no predilection to animals.

Still, the spunky canine makes for a cinematic hero that's extremely easy to root for (even through his more-cunning-than-Kevin-McCallister plan to deal with that unbecoming wolf) and those cougars are bound to emit an "aww" from even the most coldhearted viewer. Deserving chief praise are the animals and their trainers who have here strung a narrative together with little else needed other than nature. Benji's lifelong collaborator Joe Camp is the one most responsible for the movie's existence and structure; he wrote it, directed it, and even penned the opening credits tune "Too Many Yesterdays." The most notable feature not already mentioned is the benign score by Euel and Betty Box, which is unmistakably a product of its era. It alternates between a synth-heavy '80s TV movie sound, elevator jazz music, and a recurring instrumental that seems to lay the groundwork for Randy Newman's "You've Got a Friend in Me."

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1.33:1 Reformatted Fullscreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English)
Subtitles: English; Closed Captioned
Release Date: January 17, 2006
Single-sided, single-layered disc (DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $19.99
White Keepcase

VIDEO and AUDIO

Though Benji the Hunted has been available on DVD in (non-anamorphic) widescreen for some time now in a number of parts of the world (including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia), Disney has kindly bestowed the country it was made in with a fullscreen-only presentation. Though not marred by many print intrusions, the transfer does appear overly dark and lacking detail. It's not as bad as you might fear (since it seems to come from a well-preserved old video master), but it could look quite a bit better with some effort. The unfortunate reality is that Benji is kind of at par for a Disney live action catalogue title, as compromised framing has been a commonplace practice by the studio for these movies. Though the 1.33:1 transfer looks more like cropping than an open matte deal, a side-by-side comparison to Region 2 screencaps reveals that this presentation actually loses only a minimal amount of picture in the horizontal plane and adds a more significant amount in the vertical, making it open matte indeed.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is sufficient though unsurprisingly, it is not particularly demanding on your speaker setup. Surround channels are used sparingly but capably for music and effects. Even the subwoofer performs when called upon in the film's closing moments. In consideration of the origins of both the film and the DVD, the sound presentation is about the best one could hope for on this format.

This timber wolf has a bone to pick with Benji and friends. Must be jealous of Kevin Garnett. The extremely basic "Benji the Hunted" Main Menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and DESIGN

There are no bonus features included, not even a theatrical trailer, or more surprisingly, sneak peeks for other Disney DVDs.
In March of 2005, Benji the Hunted was among the first trio of movies that became available on Region 1 DVD exclusively through the Disney Movie Club. Though that disc offered the same specifications (fullscreen, 5.1 sound, no extras) as this general release, it's unclear if the transfer and data are identical. At the very least, the cover art is different from the previous version, which marked it as a DMC exclusive.

The 4x3 Main Menu (a cropping of the Region 2 screen) looks like it might have been made in the early days of the format (though it might have boasted a trailer and the all-important Film Recommendations then). It offers just "Play", "Captions", and "Scene Selections", with no animation and no sound. There is not even the option to "Register this DVD", which along with the color-less disc label, lack of previews, and sidesnap-less keepcase makes you wonder if this disc has been sitting on Disney's shelves for some time awaiting release. The pixelated cover art that looks like something you could make on your computer circa 1998 doesn't convince otherwise.

You can tie up Benji, but if the golden mutt wants to leave, he will... ...and no rugged outdoorsman can stop him.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Even the biggest Benji fans may have a tough time getting jazzed about this long-overdue wide DVD release of Benji the Hunted on account of its fullscreen transfer and utter lack of extras. For their patience, Disney is basically asking them to either go without this movie in their DVD collections, pay more than the should for this lackluster presentation, or go region-free and import the long-available widescreen disc from overseas. While the movie is worth a viewing for those fond of cuddly-looking animals like the little floppy-eared canine and four adorable orphaned cougar cubs which command the screen here, Benji the Hunted won't do much for those who aren't. It also proves hard to follow for youngsters and those not patiently giving it their full attention. Having not seen any of Benji's other productions, which span from 1974's Benji through 2004's Off the Leash! (see below for a complete chart), I can't say definitively that they'd be more adequate picks for anyone not particularly taken by Pacific Northwest scenery, but I suspect they might be and they at least are less expensive on DVD.

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Buy the Benji the Hunted Region 2 DVD from Amazon.co.uk

1.85:1 Non-anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1
PAL Format, English language, English subtitles

Related Reviews:
Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar (1967) | Cheetah (1989)
Old Yeller & Savage Sam: 2-Movie Collection | The Journey of Natty Gann (1985)
Greyfriars Bobby (1961) | Toy Story: 10th Anniversary Edition (1995)
The Shaggy Dog (1959) | The Shaggy D.A. (1976) | The Shaggy Dog (2006)

Benji: The Movies, Specials, and Show on DVD
Benji (1974) For the Love of Benji (1977) Oh! Heavenly Dog (1980) Benji the Hunted (1987) Benji: Off the Leash (2004) Benji's Very Own Christmas Story (1978) Benji, Zax, and the Alien Prince (1983)
Benji (1974)
1st Film
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For the Love of Benji (1977)
2nd Film
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Oh! Heavenly Dog (1980)
3rd Film
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Benji the Hunted (1987)
4th Film
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Benji: Off the Leash (2004)
5th Film
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Benji's Very Own Christmas Story
1978, 1st of 4 ABC TV Specials
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Benji, Zax, and the Alien Prince
(1983 TV Series)
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Reviewed January 10, 2006.