June 29, 1987 12:00 PM

In today’s movie marketplace, family entertainment has become a loaded label. For yuppie singles the words have the peal of a leper’s bell. Parents pretend the phrase precisely describes what they want for their kids but yawn (justifiably) at the thought of sitting through what passes as G-rated fare. Younger kids force-fed on an ickky-poo diet of Care Bears flicks soon mature into cunning older kids. When dropped off by elders at the local cineplex to see, say, The Chipmunk Adventure, they quickly sneak next door to the tempting forbidden zone of Beverly Hills Cop II or The Untouchables. Who can blame them? Except for the occasional Disney revival or a clever Muppet movie, family entertainment has come to mean something barren of fun or excitement. Benji the Hunted, the fourth feature film starring the Captain Marvel of mutts, changes all that. Not merely the best and most ambitious of the series (Benji, For the Love of Benji and Oh! Heavenly Dog preceded it), No. 4 has the spirit and quality of Disney’s remarkable True-Life Adventures. It seems fitting that Joe Camp, the former Texas ad exec who created the Benji films, has signed with Disney to distribute this new film. (The Disney organization was not involved in any of the previous Benji projocts.) As writer-director, Camp has hit on a potent plot for his canine hero. After a fishing accident separates him from his trainer, Frank Inn, Benji swims to shore in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest and finds himself playing protector to a group of orphaned cougar cubs. Camp takes a big risk in telling most of the story without dialogue. Luckily, Benji’s eloquent eyes and actions are more than up to the task. Doggone it, at the risk of barks from Lassie lovers and Rin Tin Tinophiles, Benji delivers the most winning dog performance ever committed to film. Who needs human actors when you have Benji to rescue his charges from a black timber wolf and a jaw-droppingly huge Kodiak bear. Eagles, rabbits, a raccoon, an owl and a frog also figure in the vigorously staged action, gorgeously filmed in the mountains and backwoods of Oregon and Washington. And do remember to bring hankies for the farewell scene. Benji the Hunted has the humor and heart to make family entertainment once again mean something that all ages can cheer. (G)

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