By Debbie Hummel
The Associated Press
OGDEN, Utah - It's the canine equivalent of being discovered at Schwab's drug store: After being spotted in a Mississippi shelter, a 2-year-old dog is living it up as the latest mutt to boast the "Benji" brand.
Benji Returns: Rags to Riches, which just ended 10 weeks of filming in Utah, is the first Benji film in 16 years. Series creator Joe Camp had aimed the movie at a Christmas crowd, but said changes in the story line show his deeper hope: that an old character's new tricks will lead to more pet adoptions.
The original Benji, who appeared in the 1974 film, was the dog that appeared for years on the TV series Petticoat Junction. Trainer Frank Inn found him at a Burbank, Calif., animal shelter, Camp recalled. After the movie came out, the American Humane Association estimated that the lovable pooch boosted pet adoptions nationwide.
Camp thought of that as he returned to the film franchise and began a nationwide search of animal shelters for the new Benji.
Making a difference
"I thought it was a great thing that the first one pulled so many dogs out of shelters that if we really focused on that ... it really can make a difference," said the writer-director, who adopted the newest dog in the fall of 2001.
Camp said his well-publicized searches prompted adoptions in the towns he visited; the Gulfport, Miss., shelter where he found the new Benji was empty within a month.
Eventually, Camp found two other dogs, one from Los Angeles and another from Chicago. He adopted them all and put them through what he calls "Benji boot camp" - tests and training to see how quickly they pick up basics like on-cue sneezes, snorts, head shakes and expressions that exhibit emotions.
The Mississippi mutt, believed to be part Lhasa apso and part shih tzu, came out on top.
The Los Angeles dog resembles her and can stand in if necessary, Camp said. That dog now lives with co-producer Margaret Loesch. The Chicago dog, Shaggy, had so much personality that he earned himself a spot in the movie as Benji's troublesome sidekick. Benji and Shaggy are more than just stars - they're Camp's pets.
Interest in these dogs' origins caused Camp to rethink his script, which originally was a feel-good Christmas tale.
"A little over a year ago this dog was ... wandering aimless, alone, abandoned in Pass Christian, Miss., and today she's finished her first movie," Camp said.
Besides the film, Camp has joined the American Humane Association and Bayer Animal Health to form Benji's Buddies Fund, which will help shelters treat abused and neglected animals before placing them in homes. Benji also will appear in public service announcements to remind people that good pets are available in shelters.
"Obviously we do hope (the movie) will increase animal shelter adoptions, that's the larger goal," said Anna Gonce, spokeswoman for the American Humane Association in Denver. " ... There are phenomenal pets waiting to be adopted every day."
Camp thinks he's found such a winner in the newest Benji. She's the fourth dog to carry the famous name since he came up with the idea for a live action movie that features dogs "acting" - conveying emotion without a human voiceover describing what the dog is thinking.
It came to him as he watched the animated Disney film Lady and the Tramp. That night, he watched his own dog - a Yorkshire terrier named Sir Benjamin of Courtney, or "Benji" - express looks of fear, bewilderment and happiness.
"I went to sleep with the distinct concept that dogs do talk if you're really paying attention," he said.
On a record-breaking 100-degree day in Ogden, the new Benji was hard at work.
In spite of the scorching temperatures, Camp's dog - who plays a male in the film - backs into a lean-to for a scene in which Benji is hiding from dog catchers. He's also hiding from Shaggy, who's doing little more than getting in the way as Benji tries to save his ill mom, who's being held by a greedy and irresponsible backyard breeder.
Keeping it simple
Camp is committed to keeping the movies simple with heartwarming stories and without gimmicks, such as talking dogs, animation or narration.
His refusal to change his vision or turn over control of the franchise in spite of interest from Hollywood has earned him a reputation as being "difficult," Loesch said.
The results: Benji (1974), For the Love of Benji (1977) and Benji the Hunted (1987) combined to gross nearly $80 million. The original Benji earned $39.5 million, an impressive haul in mid-1970s terms.
The newest Benji movie, with a budget of about $5 million, is scheduled for release next summer.
"The whole point of it is to say, If this dog can do it, if I can do it, this idiot from the sticks of the South can do it, anyone can do it - if you try hard enough and you don't give up,"' Camp said. "That's what Benji' movies are all about."
For more information, visit www.benjimovies.com
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