A Benji movie can't be the most boring thing under the sun, but while struggling to stay awake during something as tedious as "For the Love of Benji," now at area theaters, you begin to imagine that the minutes might pass more quickly and vividly if you were watching the grass grow or contemplating the horizons in Barstow or Wendover.
Joe Camp, the former ad man who runs the Benji operation out of a Dallas company called Mulberry Square, has demonstrated a flair for locating and hustling family movie audiences, but his filmmaking aims and skills are too innocous to keep the mind alive.
Camp attempts to sustain a feature on picturesque pooch love.There are two basic sequences in a Benji movie, repeated ad slumberunt - a lost Benji pounding the pavements and an alert Benji escaping the clutches of a Bad Person.
By the fifth or sixth escape scene, even the most susceptible toddlers and pooch-lovers in the house seem to find it difficult to keep cheering. Camp is not a particularly clever dog himself: He doesn't have many tricks and mannerisms to catch onto. For example, he favors subjective camera angle that begin to suggest an avoidance mechanism - not so much the desire to look at things from a dog's point of view as the inability to create interesting human characters and compose dialogue.
Even the Athens setting of "For the Love of Benji" appears to grow out of a need for concealment; the tourist panoramas and murmur of a foreign language become transparently picturesque substitute for story and dialogue.
It would probably make much more sense if Camp masterminded the marketing and exploitation aspects of the business and entrusted the film-making to people with adventuresome, stimulating concepts for animal movies. One of the unforeseen consequences of the rating system has been to ghettoize "G"-rated films in an unfortunate way, making them synonymous with Disney pictures or assiduously innocuous stuff like the Benji pictures.
The producers of "Star Wars" evidently preferred a "PG" rating, fearing that a "G" might stigmatize their movie as a pastime for squares and babies. The major studios act totally impotent when it comes to promoting an interesting or diverting family picture. For example, it was frustrating to see a film as minimal as the original "Benji" being promoted into a success so soon after Paramount had written off Stanley Donen's "The Little Prince" after giving it one big engagement at Radio City. It makes you wonder what a salesman like Camp could have done with a really classy fantasy for the family market.
The customary excuse one hears for patronizing stultifying kids' movies like "For the Love of Benji" is that there's nothing else decent around. This excuse will look pretty ridiculous in a season that offers "Star Wars" and an exceptional new animated feature from the Disney studio, "The Rescuers," which opens Friday, but that shouldn't stop it from being trotted out again. At bottom many people simply feel safer if their children are attending innocuous films, and there's no way of hiding the fact that "Star Wars" and "The Rescuers" are exciting.
"Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger," the third in the ongoing adventure series notable for the fanciful monsters molded and animated by Ray Harryhausen, falls somewhere between these inspipid and invigorating extremes. The exposition and direction are needlessly pokey, but the premise makes it possible for a child's imagination to expand by encountering outlandish adventures in story-book settings.
Harryhausen's new assortment of monsters includes a pair of endearing good guys, a baboon who is actually a young caliph under a black magic spell and a towering troglodyte who does his best to protect Sinbad & Company from a giant saber-toothed tiger in the climactic scene. There's one funny menace - a huge, ponderous walrus who rises out of the frozen north in a futile attempt to duplicate the first appearance of the shark in "Jaws." This creature looks so slow that one never quite figures out why Sinbad's party can't hotfoot it out of his path.
As Sinbad, Patrick Wayne brings back beguiling memories of Tony Curtis in his Arthurian and Arabian Nights period at Universal. Like the early Curtis, Wayne combines an acceptable heroic profile with a gloriously unforceful declamatory style. Wayne's renditions of "Oh, Queen, may the blessings of Allah be upon you" and the transporting "This is Princess Farah from the Palace of Charah," perhaps one of the greatest jingles in scriptwriting history, rank right up there with Curtis' immortal "Yonduh lies the castle of my fadduh."
Margaret Whiting makes an amusingly remorseless villainess. I was especially impressed with her indifference to the fate of a gigantic bronze monster she has created to do the heavy rowing and lifting. When this minion collapses under the weight of a block of stone, she shrugs, "He has served his purpose," and hurries on.
Patrick Troughton appears as a good magician given to silly, absent-minded stunts that often pose threats as great as those contrived by his opposite number. Harryhausen's stopmotion photography process, Dynarama, seems to get better with each succeeding film at coordinating the positions and movements of the miniatures with the actors themselves. At least one of his creatures, the baboon, is so well molded and expressive that one can't quite believe it's really a model.