America’s favorite underdog is back! Benji — the scruffy, soulful-eyed mutt whose first film, “Benji,” grossed about $45 million at the box office when it premiered in 1974 — is returning on Friday for a full-length reboot on Netflix. The update features the fourth dog to play Benji in a movie since the start of the franchise, and retains all the family-friendly innocence of the originals.
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But if director Brandon Camp had taken advice from Hollywood honchos when he first pitched the movie, the new “Benji” movie would have looked a little bit … different.
“One exec wanted Benji to talk, because he said that’s what animals in films do now,” Camp tells The Post. “Another said we need to do something cool, like ‘Benji in Space.’”
Then, it got even worse. Camp, who wrote and directed the 2009 Jennifer Aniston flick “Love Happens,” threw up his hands at a suggestion to surround a sad, washed-up Benji with ultrahip YouTube stars.
Camp left Hollywood in a huff. He wasn’t being a diva — he had good reason to stay true to the spirit of the original “Benji.”
His father, Joe Camp, created the character almost 45 years ago. An animal lover who shot television commercials, he had dreams of showing a charismatic dog’s emotional journey by shooting him at eye level.
“The film executives
Doggone it, were they shortsighted. His father financed the film independently and then drummed up the money to do a single premiere in Dallas. The movie took off from there.
Brandon, who grew up filming and promoting Benji with his parents and even brought the dogs who played him into school a few times for show-and-tell, decided he would follow in his father’s footsteps by doing the latest movie on his own. Rather than bend to “ruff” studio demands, he decided to make a low-budget film outside of the system.
Picking the right pup was crucial. Brandon started scrolling through animal-rescue websites for a glimpse of a shaggy star with just the right warm, expressive eyes.
Brandon found his Benji in a floppy-eared mutt, who was brought to a Humane Society shelter in Virginia after being discovered — malnourished, matted and flea-ridden — in an empty grocery store parking lot.
He has since found a loving home, and Brandon says he took to acting like … a dog with a bone. “He was a natural. I think he was born to do it.
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“Now he’s got a full entourage, very demanding agents and lawyers, a trailer and a personal chef,” Brandon jokes of the pooch, who recently enjoyed doling out “pawtographs” at the movie’s LA premiere. But really: “All he requires is a large, pillowy bed and a squeaky toy. If only all of the actors and actresses I worked with were this easy.”
Brandon, a father of four, is excited to introduce the beloved pup to a new generation — and of course, he wants to make his father proud. “When I decided I wanted to bring Benji back,” he says, “I asked for the keys to the proverbial car. To his credit, my dad was hands-off, and let me tell my version of the story.” Still, it hews close to the original, with a few variations: This “Benji” is set in New Orleans, rather than McKinney, Texas; a single mother, rather than a solo dad, is initially wary of bringing home a new pet for her two kids.
And how does Joe feel about his son’s vision for “Benji”?
Brandon says he loves it: “Tears were in his eyes the first time he saw it, and thus, tears were in mine, too.”