It is a dark and stormy night. Suddenly, the dog leaps up on his young owner’s bed, barking frantically, and wakes her up. Then he races into her father’s room, rousing him as well, drawing them both from their beds before tearing to the other side of their mobile home.
What’s wrong? Does he smell smoke? Gas? Can he hear thieves sneaking around outside?
In almost any other dog movie, yes. But Because of Winn-Dixie isn’t any other dog movie, and Winn-Dixie isn’t any other movie dog. Unlike typical Hollywood canines from Lassie to Old Yeller to Benji, Winn-Dixie is a regular dog, not a super-dog. He doesn’t save lives, fend off attacking animals or humans, or perform outstanding if not super-canine feats of intelligence and dexterity.
Turns out, the dog’s just scared of thunderstorms. We don’t know why. Far from a Hollywood super-dog, he’s just another wounded soul — like everyone else in Naomi, Fla., including young India Opal Buloni (newcomer Annasophia Robb) and her father (Jeff Daniels), called simply the Preacher.
Faithfully adapted from the popular Newbery Medal and Honor novel by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is a good family film frequently verging on being an excellent one, and is quite a bit better than the dog-movie clichés the trailers suggest.
Fans of the book can rest easy: Like Holes, the 2002 breakout hit from education-oriented Walden Media, Because of Winn-Dixie is true to its source material. (Walden was also responsible for last year’s worthwhile but uneven I Am David — and, of course, this year’s much-anticipated The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe.)
Opal’s father is a struggling Baptist pastor and single dad, a sympathetic clergyman who prays and preaches but is above all an ordinary and quite fallible guy. He always changes the subject whenever Opal asks about her mother. He and Opal are newcomers to the not especially welcoming fictional community of Naomi (the film was actually shot in Napoleonville, La.). The Preacher’s new calling is a storefront church with metal folding chairs in which the good people of Naomi sit stolidly, as if daring him to try to inspire them.
Their residence is a mobile home whose owner, with something less than real graciousness, allows them to stay rent-free — at least, until the momentous day when lonely Opal, desperate for a friend, spots a big, shaggy dog wreaking havoc at the local Winn-Dixie supermarket and impulsively claims him as her own, bestowing on him the first name that comes into her head.
Although the film includes enough doggie antics to keep even the youngest viewers reasonably entertained, Because of Winn-Dixie is really about Opal’s summer of discovery, in which she makes new friends, brings neighbors together, learns the truth about her mother and grows closer to her father.
Winn-Dixie is involved in all this, of course, but it’s not like he deliberately sets out to engineer a social life for Opal, much less solve other people’s problems. In fact, the secret of Winn-Dixie’s success is simply the secret that’s made dogs so spectacularly successful as companions to human beings for thousands of years: an instinctive but uncanny attentiveness and sensitivity to human behavior and emotions.
Among the locals Opal meets and ultimately brings together are Otis (musician Dave Matthews), a gruff but soulful drifter and ex-con working in a pet shop; Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), a high-strung librarian with a stock of curiously bittersweet candies; and Gloria (Cicely Tyson), a reclusive blind woman whom neighborhood boys teasingly allege is a “witch.”
The film makes a few missteps here. Among the characters it introduces are a slapstick yokel cop who is suspicious of the drifter Otis and suggests that he may have something to do with the apparent absence of the owner of the pet shop, Miss Gertrude. This loose plot end is never tied up; we never see Miss Gertrude or learn any more about her.
The unresolved suggestion that Otis may be a malefactor substantially magnifies the problematic nature of Opal frequenting the shop alone, even wheedling herself a job there in order to pay for a collar for Winn-Dixie. Clearly Otis is meant to be a decent guy, but if I were the Preacher, there’s no way I’d let my 10-year-old daughter spend hours alone with him.
These issues could easily have been patched up in Act 3, when most of the cast comes together for an impromptu party at Gloria’s house. All the film had to do was bring Miss Gertrude to the party, along with Otis and Miss Franny. Better yet, why not invite the cop, too?
Because of Winn-Dixie wears its warm, fuzzy humanism on its sleeve, this is nowhere more evident than in the party-invite list, but it falls short of extending that fuzzy humanism to bonehead cops (a second example of which figures significantly in one character’s back story).
But the story has enough heart to carry it past these missteps. Among the film’s strongest moments are a number of strikingly effective imagination/memory/fantasy sequences that put to shame similar fantasy sequences in another current film, the (in my opinion) over-praised Academy Award Best Picture nominee Finding Neverland.
The comparison is heightened by the fact that in both films the first fantasy/imagination sequence involves a bear. That footage in Finding Neverland for me lacks the necessary whimsy and is clumsily intercut with Johnny Depp and his English sheepdog. By contrast, the effect in Because of Winn-Dixie is more playful. There’s also a terrifically imagined fantasy shot involving a Volkswagen Beetle that beats anything in Finding Neverland. And dim, grainy footage of Opal’s mother, barely glimpsed playing peek-a-boo behind a tree, is one of the most evocative visualizations of the elusiveness of childhood memory that I’ve ever seen.
Following the book, Because of Winn-Dixie addresses some tough themes, including broken families and alcoholism, in a way that is accessible to children and never inappropriate even for the youngest. Although the film is seldom preachy, its themes of community and healing are framed in a Christian cultural milieu. Like Miss Franny’s semi-magical candies, Because of Winn-Dixie is both sweet and sad, a blend that does the heart good.
Content advisory: Accessible treatment of themes relating to a broken marriage and alcohol abuse. Fine family viewing.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor
and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.