BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE
(director: Wayne Wang; screenwriters: from the novel by Kate DiCamillo/Joan Singleton; cinematographer: Karl Walter Lindenlaub; editor: Deirdre Slevin; music: Rachel Portman; cast: Annasophia Robb (Opal Buloni), Jeff Daniels (Preacher Buloni), Cicely Tyson (Gloria Dump), Dave Matthews (Otis), Eva Marie Saint (Miss Franny), Courtney Jines (Amanda Wilkinson), B.J. Hopper (Mr. Alfred), Nick Price (Dunlap Dewberry), Luke Benward (Stevie Dewberry), John McConnell (Store Manager), Harland Williams (Policeman); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: Trevor Albert/Joan Singleton; Twentieth Century Fox; 2005)
“A spiritually uplifting old-fashioned shaggy-dog tale that is without guile.“
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A spiritually uplifting old-fashioned shaggy-dog tale that is without guile and never shoots for more than Lassie type of family-friendly fare, but in its limited ambitions brings off a pleasing whimsical children’s drama that adults can also relate to. Its updated modern viewpoint (includes references to eBay and computers) endearingly relates to a new America grown more racially tolerant, even in the Deep South where this film is set. It also offers a positive Christian message about universal love that does what the recent hateful The Passion of the Christ never could in reaching across a wide audience not made up of primarily intolerant fanatics. It offers a true feeling of love that Gibson’s film never accomplished, except to please its base audience with its dogma while ignoring how it was an affront to many others.
Because of Winn-Dixie is directed in a straight-forward simplistic manner by Wayne Wang (“Chan is Missing”/”The Center of the World”/”Maid in Manhattan”), and screenwriter Joan Singleton bases it on the popular Newberry-winning children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo.
Opal Buloni (AnnaSophia Robb) is a sweet but lonely 10-year-old who lives with her single parent Baptist preacher father (Jeff Daniels), her mom abandoned the family when she was three–apparently not happy to be a preacher’s wife and always being judged by the congregation. They have recently moved to Naomi, Fla., a rural small town, where the struggling preacher holds church services in a convenience store and lives in a trailer park.
While Opal is shopping in the Winn-Dixie supermarket a large filthy stray Picardy shepherd is running through the produce aisle knocking over shelves, and the store manager is about to send it to the pound when Opal claims it as hers and impulsively names it after the grocery store. At the trailer park, she convinces her reluctant dad that she needs the dog as a friend and the dog needs her to care for it. Opal does this despite the landlord, Mr. Alfred, and his objections to a howling dog on the premises.
From here on the film relies on the cuteness of the dog to be winsome as he does a number of doggy antics (grabbing a mouse during church service and interrupting the service by howling during the hymn “Just as I Am.”) and the cuteness of Opal (gracefully handling the Dewberry brothers who tauntingly call her names). The wide-eyed Opal through her dog’s initiative unites a number of lonesome eccentric characters in town that include: the librarian, Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), who survived when a bear entered the library, and is only comforted by her books and her past memories; the blind African-American recovering alcoholic recluse Gloria (Cicely Tyson), who sees with her heart; and, the sensitive pet store clerk, a drifter jailbird guitar player Otis (Dave Matthews, the leader of a band named after him), who hires Opal to work in the store so she can pay for a leash.
There are no surprises, as by the film’s end the spirited dog succeeds in enriching Opal’s life and bringing happiness to those who could use a lift in life. It does so in a cornball but good-natured manner, that is sure to please many youngsters and some adult viewers. What the film is especially good at, is addressing the alienation many Americans feel in the modern world. It offers a look at the simple travails of everyday life that get so many people down because they can’t relate to their neighbors or their surroundings or to satisfying their own needs or in making any kind of connection with others. It’s not a film that offers exciting dramatic moments, but it offers us a chance to see like a child again what we are missing by shutting others out and how much better off we would be acting friendly to those who might be shunned as outsiders. It might not be the most enlightening of messages, but it’s certainly a good starting point to do more serious thinking about making things better in the world without burning everything to the ground or by isolating those who are different. In any case, the film’s heart was in the right place even if it was a bit too much on the hokey side.
REVIEWED ON 2/21/2005 GRADE: B