Star of latest 'Benji' movie discovered at shelter

Saturday, March 20, 2004

JACKSON, Miss. -- For Joe Camp, the creator and director of the "Benji" series, his latest project is more than just another movie -- it's a gift to the people of Mississippi.

"Benji Returns: Rags to Riches," which will premiere in Jackson on March 26, is set in a fictional Mississippi town and its star, a 3 1/2-year-old mixed-breed terrier, was adopted from an animal shelter in Gulfport.

Camp said he had traveled to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to meet another four-legged finalist in a nationwide search of animal shelters when someone from the Humane Society of South Mississippi walked in with the new Benji.

After the original "Benji" premiered in the mid-1970s, word spread that its canine star was adopted from an animal shelter and adoptions increased nationwide.

Camp said he hopes the new film will spark similar interest.

"During the search for Benji ... adoptions went up wherever we went," Camp said. "After Benji's adoption in Gulfport, that facility had the biggest month in its history, completely emptying the shelter.

But "the sad truth is that ... after the exposure dwindled, it was always back to business as usual," he said.

The upcoming film will be the fourth in the "Benji" series since 1975.

Camp originally selected the new Benji to star in a Christmas film that was in the works. But after spending time with the dog, he said he was inspired to rewrite the story line.

"I wondered why would anybody abandon a wonderful dog like this," he said.

"We put the Christmas script in the drawer and wrote a script about her life."

While the film is set in a town called Gulfport, Camp said there is no attempt to make the movie town look and feel like the real Gulfport.

Camp said the film is "the might've been, could've been story of the new Benji, lost and alone, on the streets of a small Mississippi town attempting to save his mom from a backyard puppy mill."

And with a virtually unknown cast, animal lovers can rest assured that Benji is the star of the film.

Camp said he hopes to raise the bar in the family entertainment genre with the new "Benji."

He lamented the use of profane content in many family movies released in recent years. Hollywood has lowered the bar, "we're raising it back up."

And while the movie was actually shot in Utah, Camp said all the film's investors are either from Mississippi or have ties to the state.

The Mississippi connections don't end there.

Camp is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and the film's other producer, Margaret Loesch is a Pass Christian native and a University of Southern Mississippi graduate.

And an actor in the film, Nate Bynum, is a former professor of theater at Mississippi State University.

"It is truly a Mississippi film," Camp said.

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