Benji is a rust-coloured little dog who is a stray since he lost his owner, but he enjoys a contented life wandering the streets of his Texas town where he is well known to the locals, who look after him as he travels his accustomed route around the place. There are two children, Paul (Allen Fiuzat) and Cindy (Cynthia Smith), who especially love Benji and welcome him into their kitchen each morning where he is fed by their housekeeper, Mary (Patsy Garrett), but they have to keep the presence of the pooch secret from their doctor father (Peter Breck) for he would not approve, believing strays to carry diseases. But as it turns out, it's not the stray dogs that the kids should beware of...
Benji was something of a sensation on its release in the mid-seventies, a family film (as proudly proclaimed in the opening titles) that chimed with the American public and managed a healthy box office in foreign territories as well. Writer and director Joe Camp had all this in his masterplan, which was to create a film for kids that was of some quality and worth rather than the lowest common denominator, children will watch any old rubbish material that cynical producers were flooding the market with for weekend matinee showings, and he was most gratified when his scheme worked out so well - the hefty profits would have been a nice result to boot, and it set him on a career of animal movies.
Most of them featuring Benji, or the dog who played him, even including a film where he was voiced by Chevy Chase (Oh Heavenly Dog) and a science fiction television serial (Benji, Zax and the Alien Prince), though the original Benji was an animal called Higgins who had had a television career but found his swansong here, as in later entries he was played by his descendants. This was also a regional film made out of Hollywood's orbit, a Texan enterprise which boasted locations in that state and a host of accents loyal to it too, with the two lead children labouring under some of the whiniest voices ever heard in a family movie, just to underline the non-Hollywood brand we were dealing with.
Mind you, they had a lot to whine about when in the second half they are kidnapped by a gang who hole up in the abandoned house that Benji lives in when he's not wandering around. Can our four-legged hero save the day and direct the police to where the kids are being held? What do you think? Actually, for a lot of the time it seemed Camp was content not to bother with any kind of plot at all, and was more interested in depicting scenes of his pet simply walking about interacting with various folks (cat-owning little old lady, postman, Edgar Buchanan in his final role) and his own female friend who Mary names Tiffany, another stray he finds rustling through his favourite bin one day.
Indeed, there were a far higher degree of montages of Benji than was strictly necessary, albeit a handy device for padding out the plot with the padding pooch; Camp knew what would keep the audience occupied was simply watching him go about his business, doing basic tricks such as negotiating the journey into the old house or opening and eating a tin of vanilla pudding. Was it enough? Considering what passed for peril here, maybe he would have been better off keeping this as uncomplicated as possible, because when the danger arises you get scenes a family film of the twenty-first century would likely not include, including many of the children in tears and tied up and one shot of Tiffany apparently being kicked to death by the bad guys that Camp insisted on returning to over and over in one of those montages (it's OK, she survives). With its incessant country soundtrack by Euel Box (Benji's theme was Oscar-nominated! No, he didn’t sing it) this was more like a sentimental ode to the title character, sort of Love Me Love My Dog or Me and You and a Dog Named Boo on celluloid, and very much rooted to its decade.