The pooch who put the pet in "Petticoat Junction" returns from retirement in "Benji the Hunted," an idle animal adventure that finds the dog star living by his wits in the wilds of Washington and Oregon. It's like Rambo's "First Blood," with an action hero in dog tags who doesn't talk much.
Despite his advanced age -- 77 in people years -- the animal hall-of-famer ably heads a cunning cast of cougars and rabbits and bears. Alas, the Barrymore of bowserdom is beginning to look a little stiff in his stunts. Not that he doesn't work his tail off, but he's lost that old bow-wow wow.
Here, the courageous canine is shipwrecked while on a fishing trip with his trainer Frank Inn, playing himself. Inn mounts a helicopter search, as Benji, hidden under the forest canopy, woofs futilely. After a hunter kills a mother cougar before his eyes, Benji assumes the responsibility of parenting the orphans -- but only after he has overcome his natural prejudice against felines.
Joe Camp, maker of the original "Benji," writes and directs this outdoor Disney dogma, which obviously means to give little folks pause for thought. Certainly they won't get lost in the maddeningly linear story line, with Benji running up mountains and running down mountains and Benji cat-carrying cub after cub after cub after cub up the same scrabbly incline.
Frankly, it's a relief when an eagle snatches one of the foursome and the pace picks up. Mean, maybe, but not compared with Camp and company's ecological insensitivity to the endangered wolf population. They vilify the species, pitting a lovely gray wolf against old Benji, who, like a smart cowpoke, stops short at the edge of a cliff while the wolf goes flying over. Only he doesn't go splat and get back up like the Roadrunner coyote. He just goes splat. It's ludicrous, like a Monty Python spoof of Disney.
"Woof," goes Benji.
If only he could have said, "Go ahead, make my day," it would have made all the difference.
Benji the Hunted,
rated G, is at area theaters.