For someone like me who grew up in the 90s, it’s hard to believe that Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey is about to turn 30 years old. The historic date was February 12th, 1993, and Disney’s El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood is sending Chance, Shadow, and Sassy back to the big screen for a one-night-only event on Saturday, January 28th, at 7:00 pm. The screening will be preceded by a panel discussion between three of the film’s human stars – Benj Thall (Peter), Robert Hays (Bob), Veronica Lauren Sawyer (Hope), and director Duwayne Dunham. Ahead of the big event, I had the pleasure of speaking with Benj Thall, who is now a filmmaker in his own right on projects that include National Geographic’s Amazing Animals and the short film Penny starring Reginald Vel-Johnson, Don Stark, and Lance Barber.
Laughing Place: Now that 30 years have passed since the release of Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, what goes through your head as you look back at your time on the set and the legacy the film has?
Benj Thall: It was a wonderful experience, making both movies, but particularly the first movie. It was like a magical summer, the way that this movie came together with the cast and the crew and the animals. And we spent I think five, six weeks together as a full cast with the animals. And we had a chance to just form these really incredible bonds that I still feel today. I'm still friends with some of the cast. And the animals that we worked with on the film, particularly Ben, the dog who played Shadow, I had a really, really strong bond with immediately. I was an animal person already, but when we got on set, we spent a lot of time working with the animal trainers to create that bond, to create a real sense of family. And it came together really quickly. I think that's a lot of credit to Robert Hayes, who is just a wonderful guy and he just brought a lot of fun to the set. And immediately the three of us, me, Veronica Lauren Sawyer, and Kevin Chevalia, we immediately became siblings on set. And together with Kim Griest, who played our mom in the film, we just felt like family immediately. And here we are in this wonderful house shooting. We shot all of the house footage stuff first, so it really felt like a family. And we had this massive backyard that they shot for the film, so it was every day. It was, we're shooting over here, and over here, we're playing with the animals and having a good time and learning how to work with the animals because we had to work with each specific animal. The trainers worked with us individually with each of the animals, essentially to train the animals with them. So that bond was created. And that I think carries on in my own life to today. I have a dog now. So I think back to a lot of the tricks we did 30 years ago. And I think the film coming out in the theater, no one sort of expected it to be as classic of a movie as it turned out to be and as loved as it came to be,
LP: I'd be very disappointed if I found out you didn't have a dog at this point. That would break my heart.
Benj Thall: Well, it only happened this last year. I consider Ben, the dog who played Shadow, to be my first dog and my new dog, Twila, to be my second dog. I got a dog last year. I know a lot of my friends have been on me on that for a long time.
LP: What kind of dog is Twila?
Benj Thall: She's 35-pound Golden Doodle. She's kind of a Golden Retriever. She hasn't watched the movie yet. I plan to show her the movie at some point.
LP: One time, one of our dogs got out and walked around the block and came back home and we were joking, "Oh, she homeward bounded."
Benj Thall: I get emailed articles from fans, and I get stories shared, and memes sent about the movie. And so there is this huge love, and that's why doing this anniversary in a theater, we wanted to have it mark the occasion, try and get as many people as we can down there. It looks like it's going to be a really full house. There are still, I think, some tickets available, but it's going to be a great night. If people really love this, maybe we'll make more movies.
LP: That would be awesome. So how did it come together that you're all reuniting at the historic El Capitan Theatre on January 28th to celebrate this milestone anniversary?
Benj Thall: Well, I have been in touch with Bob Hayes as well as the director. The director, Duwayne Dunham, and I hadn't seen each other in probably 20 years. And a few years ago, we reunited and started just talking stories about the film and stories I had never heard, some of which he'll tell on Saturday. And it was a really wonderful experience to reflect back on the movie. It was his first movie that he directed, and he was just an amazing director to work with. I've always looked up to that experience as a filmmaker myself. Duwayne and I have created this friendship, and we tried to do something during Covid time when everybody was doing the Zoom reunion things. And we wanted to get together in person, we wanted to see each other in person. So as this anniversary was coming up, which is in February, I started reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, maybe we should do this.’ And got connected with the wonderful folks at the El Capitan and we had a brief conversation, and they thought it'd be a great idea. So that's how this thing came together, is that the El Capitan and I worked to try and reach out to cast and crew and put this event together.
LP: A lot of people forget that Homeward Bound is a remake of a 1963 Disney film called The Incredible Journey. Were you familiar with it before this role came along?
Benj Thall: When I was cast in this movie, I was already a fan of that movie. The way in which we brought it back was something so special. And I think Homeward Bound itself stands on its own, it's its own unique movie. It's not a straight reboot in a sense. It's a very original retelling of Sheila Burnford's original story. She has an incredible story. She was an incredible author. And her journey to writing the movie, writing the book, and then having Walt personally … This was Walt's like pet project in a sense. If you know the history, I think he took about five years to make the movie. He was very much involved in the process. He didn't direct it, but he was very much involved in the whole process. So for him, it was a very special movie to finally give animals on screen a real character. And I think we really elevated that with Homeward Bound. And I think that the opportunity now is to maybe even elevate it again.
LP: Does that mean there’s a possibility of more Homeward Bound films in the future?
Benj Thall: There have been talks, there have been meetings, there have been rumblings. Time will tell. If we get to tell this story in a new unique way, again, we'd very much love to see that happen.
LP: You’re now an experienced, award-winning filmmaker. How did your experience filming Homeward Bound shape your future behind the camera?
Benj Thall: I've done a lot of stuff as a filmmaker in the family entertainment space. I think working on the films, there was a sense of naturalism that we had because even though it is a kids' film, it was just set as a film. I work a lot with kids in volunteer activities, and I think the film doesn't speak down to kids. I mean, obviously, the animals are stars, but the kid actors in the film as well, that carries through a lot to the work that I try and do. As a young actor, given the chance, you have a lot to express yourself already. How that affects the way that I work now is trying to create a space on a set, or with any project that I'm doing that there's a sense of play, there's a sense of freedom. And I think that gives you the best naturalistic results. Working on the films back then has led me to try and create that sense of magic that we had on the set. I think that's what you're trying to do as a filmmaker on a set, is to set the conditions right so that people can perform and people can feel comfortable. And especially working with kid actors, it's hard to wrangle. It's hard to get that energy contained, but when you do it, it's just a wonderful thing. And I think the audience enjoys it and we create something that's magical.
LP: Do people ever recognize you from Homeward Bound? What is their reaction when they find out you were in it?
Benj Thall: Constantly. What's really, really nice is to share this experience with people that go through the journey of the movie with the animals and can reflect on their own animals and have such warmth in their heart for the movie. And for people, when they find out I was in the movie, they do. A lot of times they do a double take, and then they want to tell me about how special the movie was for them, how many times they watched the VHS tape growing up endlessly on loop and how they now have pets. I think at that time when the movie came out, we weren't as pet crazy as we are now, but I think people really did care for their animals in such a strong way. And this film celebrates that. When I have friends that find out that I was in the movie, of course, they want to recreate the scenes from the movie with me.
LP: In those reenactments, do they play Shadow? How does that work?
Benj Thall: No, they shout out for Shadow in the woods for me. I will tell you one really, really sweet story. I worked with a wonderful actor, Lance Barber, who plays the dad on Young Sheldon, and I worked with him on a short film that I directed. Several years later, I got a very wonderful long text message from him in which he told me he was on an airplane with his son, who was about six years old, and they watched the movie. And his son at the end of the film was crying, and Lance asked why he was crying and if he was upset. He said, "No, I finally know what a happy cry is."
So to receive that in the text, I mean, I had a happy cry. It's wonderful that the film still affects children, affects adults, really hits people on a level that they connect with. You can't help but feel good at the end of the film, I think.
LP: That’s awesome. What are you most looking forward to about the El Capitan anniversary reunion?
Benj Thall: Seeing my siblings. I haven't seen Kevin Chevalia in 30 some odd years, maybe 28 years. Seeing Veronica, seeing Robert Hayes. I think that's what I'm most looking forward to. There's going to be some stories shared by the producer and the director, stories that I've heard pieces of, parts of, that I think is going to be wonderful for the audience to hear, the real behind-the-scenes of making the movie. I'm also really, really looking forward to seeing the animal trainer, Joe Camp and Tammy Maples. I haven't seen Joe since we made the movie. He taught me so much about the care of animals and the care of a dog and what it really means. And he was a real presence. He was a real star of the film, and it's going to be really wonderful to have him out there and to see him. He's still working as an animal trainer, and they're still doing stuff, so it's going to be great to see him. So that's what I'm looking forward to. But the other thing I would say, the number one thing is I'm looking forward to seeing the movie on the big screen with an audience. And I know from friends that some kids are coming that have never seen the movie before and it's going to be a real treat to see it in the theater.
LP: To close out the interview, is there anything else you want to say about the film or your experience making it?
Benj Thall: There's such a love for this movie that we couldn't let an anniversary like this go by. I mean, you can watch the movie on Disney+ right now. And after the screening on Saturday, I recommend everybody go on Disney+. But there's something about seeing a movie in a theater with the score for this movie that Bruce Broughton did. Just anytime you hear it, it makes you swell with emotion. And I think being able to see it with an audience, see the magic … I mean, the combination of the performance of the animals with Michael J Fox's voice, Sally Fields's voice, there's just a magic that they captured in this movie that we don't see very often.
If you’re in the L.A. area on Saturday, January 28th, don’t miss your chance to see Disney’s 1993 classic film Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey back on the big screen. Before the film, you can see Benj Thall alongside Robert Hays, Veronica Lauren Sawyer, and director Duwayne Dunham in a panel discussion about the making of the film. Visit elcapitantheatre.com for more information.