Movies That Ruined My Childhood.
Disney’s Benji the Hunted
Benji, Disney’s answer to Lassie, tries to find his way out of the woods. What he finds instead is horror. Unspeakable horror.
The Secret Life of Pets did big business last weekend, but it made me recall another story about a pet dog. Disney’s Benji the Hunted. A soul shattering tale of a lost house pet who must survive the horrors of nature while trying to protect innocent lives. A tale steeped in violence and terror. A Disney film about a dog. But I repeat myself…
Benji the Hunted (1987)
After becoming lost at sea and coming ashore in a remote forest in Oregon, Benji the dog finds a wounded cougar who is killed by a hunter. Benji discovers the cougar had four cubs, who he attempts to shepherd to safety through the wilderness. Along the way he is confronted by eagles, bears, and a black timber wolf who is determined to make a meal of Benji’s troupe. Benji comes across another female cougar who has a single cub, and tries to get her to adopt the orphaned kittens.
Benji was quite the breadwinner for Disney, appearing in 8 films from 1974 to 2004 and one television series (the first Benji, a dog named Higgins, was later replaced by its offspring, named Benjean.) While his first films were before my time, I was familiar with him because of the Disney channel, and was really looking forward to seeing him on the big screen. I got my chance when I was 8, as Benji the Hunted was the first big screen Benji movie since 1977’s For the Love of Benji. Once I parked my butt in the seat I was treated to an opening credits sequence featuring a weepy song. That was my first clue something wrong was afoot.
My next clue was that the film starts with a news cast about how Benji, the beloved film dog, was lost at sea in a boating accident while filming his latest movie. That’s pretty much word for word how it starts. So my suggestible 8 year old mind has to digest that what I am about to witness is actually what is happening to our canine hero. The news lady said it was happening! Who am I to second guess her? Given the events of the film, that added layer of “oh fudge, this is actually happening!” really went to work on my perception of the film. Thanks, Disney. I came for a scraggly mutt who saves kids, and instead I got the goddamn Blair Dog Project. Great.
No Such Thing as a Free Lunch
We’re not even seven minutes into this tale of terror when Benji, now lost in the woods, finds a cougar who has been shot. He tries to revive it, but a hunter is quickly approaching. He even tries to drag it away by the ear, but the hunter shouts at him and takes a pot-shot at our hero. We hear another shot and the hunter struts away with a carcass on his shoulder. We’re not given a minute to mourn, because Benji finds the orphaned cubs, and now we have a fricking family drama on our hands. With the introduction of the cubs, or as Disney thinks of them “bait for every creature with claws or fangs”, we get into the real meat of the horror. Seriously, every bush in this woods has something trying to murder Benji and try to eat his newfound cubs.
The next hour is just Benji trying not to get eviscerated while shielding his rescued kittens from every hungry predator in the Wild America catalogue. He actually succeeds, too! He manages to out-fox his rivals, getting the better of animals ten times his size. I’m starting to feel better about this whole production…and then the eagle shows up.
The goddamned eagle. Things were going so well, but this big ass bird swoops in and straight up murders one of the cubs, flying away with its pathetically tiny body. What the hell, Disney! We already know the real world has consequences, we watched the mother get butchered! Snapping one of the cute cubs away from an obviously devastated Benji is rubbing it in our faces. They even play a few bars of the opening song, just to highlight how sad this whole thing is. After all of his effort, this is just cruel. It’s like having Lassie pull Timmy out of the well, only to have a helicopter pull up with a sniper who plugs Timmy dead between the eyes before sneering and flying off.
Wile E Coyote
The only bit of levity in the whole movie comes from the constant skirmishes between Benji and the black timber wolf. Benji outsmarts the wolf at every turn, but it feels sad and awful. The wolf looks like it hasn’t seen a meal in years. It’s the least intimidating animal after the cubs, and it gets the crap end of the stick each time. I don’t want it to eat the cubs…I just don’t want it to constantly get screwed over. Why not let it eat the fucking eagle? Win win.
The final confrontation has Benji and the wolf fighting over the cubs who are hidden under a rock fall. I don’t know how a fight between a 30 lb. mutt and a 70 lb. timber wolf would go (not well, is my educated guess) but this fight looks pretty damn real. Did they film this in Michael Vick’s backyard? After snapping at each other, Benji lures the wolf into a chase, knowing that there is a hidden cliff with some bushes in front of it. What happens is one of the worst things I have ever cheered for in my entire life.
Look at it. Poor bastard. The Road Runner would be a lot less funny if you had to watch a real coyote go screaming to its death after each chase. But still…it is fricking hilarious on some level. I need to go re-think my life.
Disney’s Benji the Hunted is a pretty gripping nature survival story that doesn’t pull any of its punches. It’s all animal action, no sappy humans allowed. It just happens to be incredibly brutal and full of harsh scenes where we see nature, red in tooth and claw. It certainly wasn’t what I expected from a Benji movie, especially since the last outing for our hero was him playing the goofy reincarnated version of Chevy Chase in Oh! You Heavenly Dog. But that my friends is a story for another time…