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A Family Movie for the Dog Days

By Donna Peremes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2004; Page WE38

There's a mystery in "Benji: Off the Leash!" and I'm not entirely sure it's intentional. It is this: Which of the two starring balls of adorable tan fluff is the primo poochy? The closing scene literally spells it out, but the film could really be called "Benjis: Off Their Leashes," since the two leads pack equal canine charisma -- one scrappy, one soulful.

The plot is a violent one, and though violence is rarely shown, it is suffused throughout the movie with convincing menace in the person of Terrence Hatchett (Chris Kendrick), a mean, mean, mean man running a Mississippi puppy mill. His sensitive son, Colby (Nick Whitaker), rescues a pup that Hatchett kicks and declares worthless, concealing the orphan in an elaborate hidden fort. Colby brings the pup's mother, painfully over-bred by the cruel Hatchett, to the fort so Puppy can nurse.

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Heavy scenes of implied domestic and animal abuse are jarringly intercut with the lighthearted shtick of two Keystone Kops-like animal control agents dogged by a frisky stray they call Lizard Tongue since he's always panting. When Puppy ventures out of the fort, he meets up with Lizard Tongue, and the two become a force to be reckoned with in sleepy Cuddaho County, barking truth to power and plotting to rescue Puppy's sick mother, who remains in the clutches of the evil Hatchett. The overall unevenness of tone is the movie's biggest flaw, but the slo-mo scenes of doggie derring-do are quite funny, and the message about how to treat both humans and animals evergreen.

BENJI: OFF THE LEASH! (PG, 97 minutes) --Contains violence, mostly implied but some onscreen; theme of domestic abuse. Area theaters.

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