• For The Love Of Benji (Mill Creek Entertainment) Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack Review

    Released by: Mill Creek Entertainment
    Release date: April 3, 2018
    Directed by: Joe Camp
    Cast: Benji, Patsy Garrett, Cynthia Smith, Allen Fiuzat, Tiffany, Ed Nelson, Peter Bowles, Art Vasil, Bridget Armstrong
    Year: 1977
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    For the Love of Benji - Movie Review

    Joe Camp’s film career began in 1973 with one soon-to-be very high-profile picture—which he wrote, produced, and directed—a family film about a beloved pooch named Benji. The trailer advertised the film as something completely unique, and the gamble paid off richly despite being completely untrue. Disney had been making animal-based family films for close to two decades, and Benji most definitely wasn’t a patch on that studio’s classic Old Yeller (1957). There had also been movies casting dogs in ‘lead’ roles going back to the silent era, and television had had enormous hit series based on Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin. Benji was hardly something new, despite the claims presented in the trailer, which is a collection of people touting its virtues as they leave a screening. The film—which had been shot on approximately $500,000 around Dallas, Texas and its ‘burbs—raked in a whopping $39 million at the U.S. box office alone, making it into the top ten performers of 1974. Naturally, such success called out for a sequel, and For the Love of Benji provided the goods three years later.

    A far better film than its predecessor, For the Love of Benji owes a debt to Lassie, particularly in its story of a lost dog trying to make its way home. (Just compare the basics of Love’s plot to that of Lassie Come Home, 1943.) Love concerns the titular pup, whose owners are headed for a vacation in Crete; along for the ride are their dogs, Benji and Tiffany, which are placed in carriers for the flight. Unknown to the family, however, a secret agent, Chandler Dietrich (Ed Nelson), has hidden a code in Benji’s paw. When the family gets to Crete, they learn that Benji and Tiffany missed the connecting flight and are still at the Athens airport. Unfortunately, an airport worker accidentally sets Benji free. He escapes into the city, where he has a series of adventures while searching for his family, food, and new friends, all while staying one step ahead of his pursuers, the men who hope to access the secret code in his paw.

    For the Love of Benji has a number of things going for it that the original didn’t have, beginning with a story that’s actually interesting. Neither film had a plot in the strictest sense of the term, and both moved from disconnected scene to disconnected scene. But at least the second film feels like it’s going somewhere. While parts of it were shot in Houston, Texas and New York City, it’s clear that much of the picture was actually shot in and around Athens, Greece, leading one to conclude that Camp and family wanted a European vacation. Not that that’s a bad thing; the location work lends an air of authenticity to the proceedings.

    To some degree, both films are told through Benji’s eyes, but the second film works better, perhaps because of the location work and stronger story. The film begins with two men having a conversation in Greek, and their dialogue is neither dubbed nor subtitled, providing a sense of alienation and claustrophobia from the outset, much like And Soon the Darkness, which proceeded it by seven years. That horror classic has two girls biking across the French countryside; the other characters speak in their native tongue, leaving both the girls and the audience to guess what they’re saying. That Love begins in similar fashion sets up a similar feeling of isolation and helplessness. When Benji begins his trek, he encounters a number of people and locales with which he is not familiar; the viewers, then, more readily identify with the poor pup. And that, as much as anything else, is why For the Love of Benji works as well as it does.

    For the Love of Benji - Blu-ray and DVD Review:

    Mill Creek Entertainment brings For the Love of Benji to Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high-definition. Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the film looks really good. This is a movie shot in very naturalistic tones, so don’t expect surrealistic colors, though the few pastels that do exist pop appropriately. (Note that this is a mostly earthy film concerned more with realistically capturing outdoor locales in Greece than in presenting bright reds, blues, and yellows.) Where this Blu-ray really comes to life, however, is in the details. From men’s tweed jackets to women’s daywear, airport interiors to famous Greek exteriors, no fabric or stone is left undelineated, no blade of grass or errant tree given short shrift by the stellar transfer. Scenes containing human populations going about their business in cities or airports are pregnant with information. Grain is organic without being oppressive, while there’s some minor speckling, dirt, and debris… so minor, in fact, that an overwhelming number of viewers will likely never notice it, though those of us who do will see it for what it is: irrefutable evidence that this is a bona fide film and looks like it, despite the upgrade to a newer, digital medium.

    Mill Creek offers one audio option for the film’s primary track: English LPCM 2.0. In general, the lossless track sounds fairly good, with decent prioritization, though there are occasions when voices become lost in the din; sound effects are sometimes pushed to the fore, resulting in dialogue becoming unclear or indiscernible. Thankfully, there are no massive changes in audio level, so don’t expect to jump out of your seat at an inopportune moment. This isn’t really a loud film with loud effects.

    The only extra on the Blu-ray is an audio commentary by director Joe Camp and his son Brandon. Brandon acts as moderator; and while the two men are fluid and conversational, they clearly prepared the progression of their remarks in advance (something this reviewer absolutely lauds). They begin by discussing why Greece was chosen as the location for the story. Brandon asks the questions and occasionally interrupts his father to make points about the production. They discuss the first film as well as the second, along with the process in moving from Movie 1 to Movie 2. Elder Camp reveals that he wrote the script while in Greece to capture the nation’s flavor from the outset, thus making the country itself a character. Production and distribution, some of the people behind the scenes (particularly if they pop up in bit parts), finding a crew, individual locations, working with Benji, the dog’s star power, the other dog performers and their trainers, and so much more are discussed. There isn’t a whole lot of discussion about the actors, but then, this is Benji’s story, and the actors don’t get the kind of screen time here that they got in the first film. There are a couple of minor silent moments, but these are few and far between and never last long enough to be too distracting.

    Mill Creek has seen fit to include the film on a DVD as well, and it’s there that the extra features come into play. While For the Love of Benji doesn’t look nearly as good here as it does on the BD, it still looks pretty good. There are some occasional compression issues, but overall, viewers without a Blu-ray player will still be able to enjoy this presentation.

    First up is a vintage, half-hour special, "Benji Takes a Dive at Marineland," which was made for television and originally aired in the United States on May 10, 1981 (its U.K. premiere followed two-and-a-half years later, in December of 1983). Running 26:34, it begins with a warning about bootlegging and an ad for the Benji website, after which the program itself starts. Hosted by a muppet mermaid, it’s an entertaining, albeit silly, little short, one that nonetheless kept Benji’s name alive for children into the ‘80s. Benji naturally looks a little older and mangier than in Love but remains a screen presence regardless.

    Rounding out the extras is a feature-length film, The Double McGuffin (1:40:23) from 1979. Originally released by Paramount, it deals with a group of students who happen upon a suitcase of money and, shortly thereafter, a dead body, but unable to get the authorities to believe their story, they take it upon themselves to investigate, leading them to prevent a planned assassination. The word “McGuffin” (usually spelled MacGuffin) is defined at the outset, thanks to voice-over narration by none other than Orson Welles, and involves a device that sets the plot in motion. The conceit here is that there are two such devices. As with the Benji movies, the film was written, directed, and produced by Joe Camp. This time out, however, he’d found enough success with his previous films that he was able to draw A-list talent to the proceedings, including Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy, and Elke Sommer. Camp himself even has a cameo as a newsstand operator.

    The film is fun and breezy in a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries sort of way. It’s a great extra to include, and it was clearly given a hi-def transfer. So why it was shuffled onto the standard-definition DVD rather than onto the Blu-ray, which has a much higher capacity for information storage, is anyone’s guess. Thankfully, despite two movies and a half-hour short included, it doesn’t suffer too much from the compression. Action scenes sometimes get a little blocky, but otherwise the image is fairly crisp.

    The package comes with a slipcover.

    For the Love of Benji - The Final Word:

    For the Love of Benji is a better film than its predecessor, and it’s given the kind of presentation it deserves on Blu-ray, with lots of extra detail and vivid colors (when they come into play). And while the extras are mostly shuffled onto the DVD, they’re still entertaining. Between those, the audio commentary, and Mill Creek’s low retail price, this is a package well worth owning, particularly for people who—like this reviewer—grew up watching these films on Saturday afternoons in the early 1980s.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2019.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!

    Comments 2 Comments
    1. Matt H.'s Avatar
      Matt H. -
      Great review. Benji is such an adorable little hump. I'm dying to see OH, HEAVENLY DOG - I hope that gets released some time in the future.
    1. C.D. Workman's Avatar
      C.D. Workman -
      I remember me, my older brother, and my younger sister watching these as very young kids and loving them; I was surprised to see how well this one held up (though I'm sure a little bit of nostalgia on my part helped).