"Learning About Love, Forgiveness and Commitment"
What You Need To Know:
Older moviegoers will sense being manipulated during some parts of the story, but the tender moments are authentic enough to help viewers overlook the movie’s faults. A “follow your heart” message, for example, dilutes the movie’s strong Christian, redemptive elements. Consequently, the movie lacks the kind of spiritual substance it could have had. In spite of these missteps, Opal learns about faith, love, forgiveness and commitment when her father opens up to her. Ultimately, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE is a highly enjoyable and endearing story that will appeal to children, parents and educators.
(BBB, CCC, Ab, Ro, FR, L, V, AA, M) Very strong moral worldview with very strong Christian elements including girl prays for a new friend then meets her new dog, dad shown praying and reading his Bible, preacher leads church in the Lord’s prayer, friends happily sing “Since I Laid My Burdens Down”, friends offer prayer of thanksgiving, and themes about a preacher’s daughter who befriends a dog in a small town, with light anti-biblical elements in a poor portrayal of Christians and their forelorn church, plus congregation sings uninspired rendition of “Amazing Grace”, as well as Romantic elements that dilute the Christian, redemptive elements with a problematic “follow your heart” message, such as woman says she relies on her heart, encourages heroine to “learn the most important thing” (then adds that it is different for everyone), and later teaches that “war is a cuss word”; one light obscenity, one character utters “God” as an exclamation, and man steps in dog poop; slapstick violence (played for comedic effect) includes dog jumping on man, dog ripping pants of policeman, dog knocking man down, dog nuzzles man’s crotch, dog catches (but does not kill) a mouse, man talks about shooting his old dog, dog intensely frightened by thunderstorm, and man describes events which led to his arrest (hitting a policeman); no sex or nudity but policeman shown in bright underwear after dog tears his pants; drinking and alcohol rebuked, major plot point and much discussion of mother who became an alcoholic, hated being a preacher’s wife (because of judgmental ladies in church), and abandoned her husband and 3-year-old daughter; and, elderly single woman lightly rebuked for remaining isolated, some characters tell lies, others admit sin and “mistakes,” several characters ask forgiveness for their wrongs, themes of relationships restored, children tease each other with silly name-calling, boys warn girl about visiting the “witch’s house,” woman talks about “mistake tree” in her yard which keeps ghosts of her past away, and girl encourages town people to share their sadness and joys with each other.
“Everything good that happened that summer happened because of Winn-Dixie,” explains 10-year-old Opal (sweetly played by Annasophia Robb) early on in this family comedy. Opal’s father (played by Jeff Daniels) is the new preacher of the Open Arms Baptist Church, a small and sedate congregation meeting in an old store front in rural Florida. While the congregation prays the Lord’s Prayer, Opal secretly prays to God for a friend. Later that day, in an apparent answer to her prayer, a mischievous stray dog adopts her at the Winn-Dixie grocery store. She decides to name the mutt after the store.
Opal convinces her emotionally-distant father to let her keep the expressive dog, at least until she can find him a new home. A mean old landlord (with a cat in his arms) makes it clear he will not let them keep the dog for long. Winn-Dixie, after all, is an intimidating sight. He is large and long-haired, ugly and beautiful at the same time. He is prone to knocking things and people down while maintaining a pleasant demeanor. In other words, he is immediately likable. In fact, only old curmudgeons are able to find something unpleasant about him.
Winn-Dixie and Opal weave through the small town like a needle and thread repairing a patchwork quilt. They seek friendships earnestly and take time to listen to the locals’ sad and sometimes amusing stories. Throughout their journey, Opal and Winn-Dixie befriend an elderly librarian (Eva Marie Saint), an isolated “crazy” woman (Cicely Tyson) thought to be a witch by the local kids, a guitar-playing pet shop operator fresh out of jail (Dave Matthews), and many other eccentric characters over the lazy summer months. They enrich the lives of the residents and ultimately create a renewed sense of community in this little town that time forgot.
When Winn-Dixie finds something that makes him smile, the remaining jaded viewers will be won over. (Cat lovers and dog haters be warned: It’s hard to resist the antics of this far-from-perfect pup.) Winn-Dixie is not exactly well-behaved, but that only adds to his infectious charm.
Opal finds comfort and companionship in Winn-Dixie, while struggling to understand why her own mother abandoned their home seven years earlier. She pleads with her father for more information, but “the Preacher” is still too wounded to talk about it. Slowly and delicately, he shares more and more about his wife and why she left them. He reveals that she “hated being a preacher’s wife” because she was always being judged by the ladies in the church. Drinking added to her isolation until, one day, she rode away in a cab and never returned.
Opal has plenty of time to ponder the sad issues of life. She spends her summer days visiting friends around town and working as a floor sweeper in the pet store. She gains warm-hearted insights and support from the townsfolk by listening to their own tales of struggle and sorrow. Winn-Dixie’s large pointed ears suggest he likes to listen, too. Together, they endeavor to reunite the disconnected town by throwing a party for all their friends. After a frightening thunderstorm causes Winn-Dixie to run away, the Preacher’s sad exterior finally breaks, and Opal learns about faith, love, forgiveness and commitment.
BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE is based on the award-winning children’s novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo. Her books have been a hit with children and the movie will likely win viewers over, too. Director Wayne Wang (THE JOY LUCK CLUB and MAID IN MANHATTAN) helps this story transcend its “after school special” leanings and gives it a lot of heart. As a result, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE surpasses the fading memory of those old BENJI movies. Sure, older moviegoers will sense being manipulated during some parts of the story, but the tender moments are authentic enough to help viewers overlook the movie’s faults.
It is said that the story retains much of the spiritual content found in the novel. However, the subsidiary “follow-your-heart” messages in BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE are confusing and theologically weak. One character advises Opal to find “the most important” things in life. When pressed about what they are, the woman replies that “it’s different for everyone,” even though this woman turns out to be a believing Christian. The writing is uneven in these places and discerning Christians will pick up on these weak spots. Opal later tells her about someone who cussed, and the woman throws out, “War is a cuss word, too.” (Where did THAT come from?) So, the movie’s messages are mixed but strongly moral. In fact, the movie contains very strong messages about accepting responsibility for one’s actions, forgiveness and restoration. These positive messages are often repeated.
BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE is a highly enjoyable family-friendly movie. The sadder themes may be too intense for older sympathetic children, but the ending is upbeat and charming. MOVIEGUIDE appreciates the wholesome qualities of the story, but is disappointed with the poor representation of the church-folk. The Preacher reads his Bible and prays frequently, but cannot seem to find joy or forgiveness himself. He certainly does not offer much in the way of joy to others around him. The small congregation seems bored with their Sunday-service-religion and only finds enjoyment when Winn-Dixie stirs a meeting up. Other characters convey traditional values while most avoid any overt God-connection. Opal is motivated to do good to others, but gives Winn-Dixie the dog more credit than God for the final result. Even so, however, the dog represents an answer to Opal’s prayer to God that He send her a friend. Ultimately, therefore, the movie implies that God is the one who improves the lives of Opal, her father and the townspeople.
In spite of its missteps, BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE is a heartwarming story that will appeal to children, parents, educators, and other moviegoers looking for fun, positive entertainment. It is endearing and realistic. It is sure to make viewers smile and feel good.