BENJI: OFF THE LEASH! (PG, 97 minutes)
Kids 8 and older with a soft spot for cute canines will enjoy this rambling boy-and-his-dog tale, which mixes doggy hijinks and human slapstick with more serious themes. Love of dogs is key, because the amateurish acting, writing and production values in this independently made film feel more like the stuff of home movies than Hollywood. Most previous "Benji" films have been rated G ("Benji," 1974; "For the Love of Benji," 1977; and "Benji the Hunted," 1987 -- 1980's "Oh Heavenly Dog" was a PG), but "Off the Leash" earns its PG for dealing with parental abuse. Many kids under 8 might enjoy it, but parents may want to check it out first. The film features a verbally abusive father (or stepfather -- it's unclear) who threatens to hit the boy hero and his mom (later we see her bruises). He throws a puppy across a room, though it's not hurt, and mistreats a sick dog. Comical dogcatchers mess with a tranquilizer gun.
Writer-director Joe Camp has set "Off the Leash" in Mississippi. Fourteen-year-old Colby (Nick Whitaker) helps his surly father (Chris Kendrick) run a puppy mill. He saves a pup about to be killed because it doesn't look like a purebred and raises it in a secret hideaway in the woods where he escapes his unhappy home. The pup grows into a clever dog who, in league with another rascally stray, schemes to rescue his ailing mama, Daisy, from the puppy mill. Their antics give the animal control guys (Randall Newsome and Duane Stephens) fits. All is eventually set right.
WITHOUT A PADDLE (PG-13, 99 minutes)
In this rarely funny doofus flick, a trio of 30-year-old guys go canoeing in the wilds of Oregon. They hope to find the $200,000 left by legendary crook D.B. Cooper after he parachuted into the woods and disappeared in 1972. They encounter rapids, waterfalls, a bear that thinks one of them is her cub, redneck dope growers who chase them with automatic weapons, gorgeous girls living in a giant redwood tree and a bearded mountain man (Burt Reynolds). All of which might be fun, were it not for the trying-too-hard script and the crude jokes that do little to lighten it. Even so, "Without a Paddle" is geared to teen boys, and they may find its few laughs worth a matinee ticket.
The movie tests its PG-13 limits with a couple of comic, though non-explicit sexual situations, homophobic humor and verbal sexual innuendo about female anatomy. The script also contains gags about getting high, a poor joke about Mexicans crossing the border illegally, gross toilet humor, comic violence and occasional profanity. The doofus heroes are a timid doctor (Seth Green), a commitment-phobic man-child (Matthew Lillard) and a luckless gambler (Dax Shepard). They go on their adventure after a childhood pal dies suddenly and reminds them life is short.