Rich Dog, Poor Dog | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Rich Dog, Poor Dog

The world premiere of "Benji Returns: Rags to Riches" will be Thursday, March 25, at the Parkway Theater on Lakeland Drive. The black-tie event includes a silent auction, a meet-and-greet with Benji and Camp, and an advance viewing of the movie. Tickets are $100. The premiere is a dual benefit for the Mississippi Animal Rescue League and the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children. The film opens in local theaters March 26.

What is it about that shaggy little pup? Benji is a real live dog, complete with those endearing brown eyes and perky tail as well as expressions that just plain talk to us humans. As a family movie, "Benji" bucks the Hollywood trend—no-special effects gimmicks (like silly talking mouths), no violence, no off-color jokes and—hallelujah—no references to bodily functions.

Joe Camp, Benji's originator and writer/director of the latest installment—"Benji Returns: Rags to Riches"—told me by phone from California last week, "We're proud of the fact that we have a real movie with a solid story that is character driven … that you can take anybody to see without worrying about what you'll see. It's emotional and funny, with more humor in it than any Benji movie has ever had."

The biggest difference about Benji movies, though, is the fact that they've spurred many Americans to make a socially conscious decision—not to just head for the nearest toy or discount store to buy the coveted movie tie-in products. According to the American Humane Society, once it became known that the original Benji was adopted from a shelter, more than 1 million dogs were adopted. That news made Camp's decision to once again search animal shelters for the fourth Benji an easy one.

The current Benji, a mixed-breed terrier who will be 3 1/2 when her movie debuts, was adopted from the Humane Society of Southern Mississippi in Gulfport in November 2001. The movie abounds with Mississippi connections: Camp attended high school in Memphis, which he said is sort of north Mississippi, and graduated from Ole Miss. Margaret Loesch, the film's other producer, grew up in Pass Christian and went to Southern Miss in Hattiesburg. And although it was not originally intended, all the production money for the film ended up being raised in the Magnolia State or from people with ties to it. Plus, the story is set in Mississippi.

Fittingly, the world premiere of "Benji Returns: Rags to Riches" will be Thursday, March 25, at the Parkway Theater on Lakeland Drive. The black-tie event includes a silent auction, a meet-and-greet with Benji and Camp, and an advance viewing of the movie. Tickets are $100. The premiere is a dual benefit for the Mississippi Animal Rescue League and the Blair E. Batson Hospital for Children. On March 26, Mississippians can see the movie at four Jackson area theaters as well as in Vicksburg, Brookhaven and Natchez.

Camp told me the story bubbled up from conversations he and his wife, Kathleen, had after they got Benji back to California, wondering who could have abandoned such a terrific dog. The original script with a Christmas theme was put in a drawer, and Camp wrote what he calls the "could've been, would've been" story of Benji's life prior to being discovered, then shining in the tryout (what Camp's wife calls Benji Boot Camp), and winning the part.

National release is set to begin in Texas and the Southeast on June 11 and for the entire nation by July 30. Mulberry Square Releasing will distribute the film using "a platformed release" so that Camp and Benji can visit as many as 20 cities to spread the word about adopting pets from a shelter. The Benji's Buddies Foundation will use paid advertising, public service announcements, and live media appearances on a continuing basis to essentially brand homeless shelter pets as "Benji's Buddies" and keep the needs of these animals in people's minds long after they've enjoyed "Benji Returns: Rags to Riches."

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