Seriously, guys: put that damn dog down!
By Paul Mavis
If you’re like me and you love those often bizarre, frequently asinine Christmas TV specials from the 1970s…well, you’ve got a tough row to hoe, let me tell you, with Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story!, the ABC prime time special that aired 40 years ago on December 7th, 1978 (that’s right…Pearl Harbor Day). Starring Ron “Pick a Pocket or Two” Moody, Patsy “Chow! Chow! Chow!” Garrett, and Cynthia “Huh?” Smith, Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story! would have been perfectly acceptable family Christmas fare, regardless of content, if writer/director Joe Camp had done what needs to be done—at the barest minimum—for any “Benji” outing: let Benji be Benji! Nostalgic Benji freaks will, however, demand that this vivid new Mill Creek Entertainment Blu-ray/DVD combo transfer be in their Christmas stocking.
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Okay, here’s the story. International movie star and incurable leg humper Benji (Benjean) is on a whirlwind European promotional jaunt, accompanied by his two frequent co-stars Patsy Garrett and Cynthia Smith (playing themselves, I guess). In Switzerland, they’re asked to be grand marshals of a Christmas parade in snowy, picturesque mountain village, Zermatt. Prepping for the parade, they’re introduced to “Kris Kringle” (Ron Moody), their sleigh driver.
Begging their leave, Kris asks if Benji and his friends can spare just a moment or two to visit some friends, before the start of the parade. Terminally bored Benji can’t be bothered to yap a reply, but wary Patsy and Cynthia agree, and off they all go. Pulling up to a decrepit shack, the trio enter and come out the other side…to a wonderland of elves and Christmas cheer! It seems that “Kris Kringle” really is Santa Claus, and the trio are now at his workshop and futuristic command center!
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So…why the dognapping? Apparently, Santa pulled up lame this year with a busted fetlock, so his elves will have to do the deed this Christmas Eve. All Santa wanted to do was give them a little morale booster in meeting Benji (he’s a nice boss…but felony kidnapping is still felony kidnapping). However, if Santa can’t deliver all the toys this year, how is he able to do all that ersatz Broadway dancing…?
Hey, if you think this review is going to be a slam on Benji, well you can just cram it this Christmas, mister: I love that scrappy little cur. In this love poem review, I sing Benji’s praises, including his 1974 debut movie (when he was portrayed by that masterful thespian, Higgins, of Petticoat Junction fame), and a couple of dodgy—but unintentionally hilarious—ABC TV specials (when novice Benjean took over the Benji character). So no, the problem I have with Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story! isn’t with Benji…but the lack thereof said adorable pooch.
Unlike most Benji projects, I have zero memory of Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story!, so I’m betting there was something else on that Thursday night, 40 long years ago: probably The Waltons, or even Project UFO (…or just being a 12-year-old boy who didn’t want to watch Benji and Santa). When I looked at the back of Mill Creek Entertainment’s Blu-ray disc case, they listed Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story!’s running time at 1 hour and 34 minutes. Settling in for the long haul, as I’m watching the special, seeing Ron Moody do his West End/Broadway musical number thing and seeing Benji getting ready for the parade, imagine my surprise when the end credits abruptly rolled at the 24 minute mark. Did I accidentally hit the remote and skip a few chapters? Nope. Despite Mill Creek’s triple-plus over-estimate, Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story! is over before you know it.
And that’s a bad thing, because very little happens in that short 25 runtime. Normally I like these specials to get in and get out with as little fuss as possible, but Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story! is far too truncated to get the job done. All that really happens is Benji and the cast are seen on a street in Zermatt, Santa takes them to his workshop and command center where a song is sung, before the cast is hustled back to the same spot in Zermatt. Roll credits.
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The story, if you can call it that, makes little sense. SPOILERS Santa wants to give his elves a morale boost with visiting Benji…while he lies about his broken leg, because he wants to be home on Christmas Eve? That’s it? After hundreds of years it never occurred to Santa, until he gazed at glassy-eyed Benji, that he has millions of homes on Christmas Eve, because “home is where someone loves you,”? Santa doesn’t know he’s loved? And how does merely staring at Benji bring about that realization? Oh…and Santa is a liar?
Okay, so no story. The scenery (we only get one street in Zermatt) is fine, and the two sets are agreeably elaborate for a 1970s TV production; the CEPAC (“Christmas Eve Planning and Communications”) set promises something a little extra for the Star Wars fans out there…before we’re whisked away, never to return. We also get a fashion show, of sorts, as Moody models costumes Santa wears in other countries (that whole Needles and Pins Cockney git elves bit doesn’t work, with the glam rock fashion drawings). Interesting, I suppose…but hardly designed to hold a young viewer waiting to see Benji lift his leg (Santa wears a matador’s outfit in Mexico? Sure.).
Certainly the inclusion of Oliver!’s Ron Moody promises some class for Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story!. Moody is game enough (his Texas accent is atrocious, however), betraying none of the dismay that might have shown for a performer going from the toast of Broadway and Hollywood to playing second banana to a zonked-out hound, all in less than ten years. However, Joe Camp’s script gives him nothing but gimcrack Alice in Wonderland/Wonka-lite verbal reversals that grow increasingly annoying. I let it slide when he responded to the trio’s question about their whereabouts with, “Somewhere exactly between here and there, which is halfway between sooner or later…and very nearly up or down.” But I drew the line at, “We all get confused because it’s a confusing world. Not just here, but there, though it shouldn’t be, but it is, isn’t it? Or is it?” In the immortal words of Martha (of George and Martha fame, that is): “Shaddup!”
All of that I could deal with. All of it. It’s a TV Christmas special—it’s not Strindberg. But I see absolutely no point in watching a Benji Christmas special—or any Benji project for that matter—that doesn’t feature the dog doing something. Within five minutes of Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story!, you realize the dog’s feet haven’t touched the ground. At all. He’s just being hauled around from set to set, without walking on his own. Was there something wrong with his little legs? Was it all the snow in Zermatt (the humans do look like they’re having a bit of time navigating the snow piles)? Did Benjean throw a tantrum during the musical production number and trot off to his trailer/kennel?
Why isn’t Benji running around, nipping at the elves’ heels during that musical extravaganza? Why isn’t Moody dancing with Benji, spinning around the mutt while Benji stands up on two legs, yapping his scruffy head off? All the dog does is run through the bullfighter cape? I want to see the goddamned dog do something, okay? By the special’s end, I wouldn’t have cared if Moody had picked him up and drop-kicked him through the goal posts; he needed to move! He doesn’t even look like he wants to be held, for god’s sake (watch Benjean try and get as far away as possible from Moody, when the actor grabs the dog’s neck for a hug during the musical’s fade-out). Why would a kid want to watch Benji cradled like a baby for 25 minutes?
We don’t even get the “money shot” that’s supposedly the backbone of Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story!: the parade. Yes—they don’t show the parade. Wait; you’re going to tease the television viewers out there with the promise of a Christmas parade in scenic, snowy, Christmas-y Switzerland, with a delighted Benji yelping out to all his fans lining the scenic streets…and then not show it? You gotta be kidding me. No wonder Benji’s Very Own Christmas Story! left me in a bad distemper.
PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.