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Benji is back, in a tale relying on film techniques

Joe Camp got his inspiration for the ``Benji'' movies, he once told me, from Walt Disney cartoons in the classic ``Lady and the Tramp'' tradition. Mr. Camp's dream was to capture that kind of fun, and sentiment, in a live-action format with a real-life pooch at center-screen.

``Benji the Hunted,'' the latest stage in this attempt, confirms that Camp still hasn't found the source of Disney's magic. Like earlier Benji films, it's a kiddie adventure that lacks the brilliant characterizations and indelible images that might put it in a league with Disney's best - even though it's the first Benji epic to be released by Walt Disney Pictures.

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``Benji the Hunted'' marks an advance for Camp, though. Set on an island far from Benji's former haunts, it unfolds its tale almost completely without dialogue or narration.

In relying so radically on visual storytelling, it's the most purely cinematic of recent animal adventures.

It's also the most Disneyesque, recalling not only Disney's cartoon tradition but also his bygone ``True Life Adventures,'' rigged-up nature documentaries twisted into narrative form through selective (and manipulative) editing.

``Benji the Hunted'' starts with a Pirandellian twist. A newscaster tells us that Benji himself - not a character he's playing - has been lost at sea while making a scene for a new movie.

Benji's real-life trainer, Frank Inn, then shows up to describe the accident and sadly shake his head.

Cut to indestructible Benji, swimming ashore on a nearby island. There he begins an adventure that involves a hunter and wildcat, among other new friends and foes.

The story has few surprises. But our hero is still a formidably cute canine, and Benji-lovers of all ages are sure to laugh a lot, maybe cry a little, and have a delicious time all around.

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Others may yawn, but at least it's diverting to see how Camp has faced the challenges of telling a largely wordless tale.

``Benji the Hunted'' has a G rating, itself a welcome novelty for a live-action picture.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic. His Freeze Frames capsule reviews appear on Fridays.

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