Because of Winn-Dixie is the story about a lonely little girl and the stray dog she adopts, their adventures, and especially the friends they make, over one long summer.
Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) rescues Winn-Dixie from the dog pound (she names him on the spot at the supermarket where he is joyfully wreaking havoc), takes him home to her preacher father (Jeff Daniels) who only reluctantly agrees to keep the orphan Winn-Dixie until the owner can be found. The preacher is a sad man whose wife left him and Opal years before. Opal continually asks him about her mother, but he only speaks of her when he finally has no choice. Opal and Winn-Dixie have a lot in common.
The truth of this film is, if you want to know the story, read the 2001 Newbery Award-winning book by Katie Di Camillo by the same title. If you are even an average reader, it won’t take you much more than an hour. This is not to negate this favorite ‘tween novel, however. Because the film stays so faithful to the book, it can be characterized as quite literate and the scenes are like chapters. What brings the story to life is the sparkling little new-comer AnnaSophia Robb and Winn-Dixie who actually does seem to smile (not clear how much computer finessing went into those scenes but they are funny; the kids in the audience loved it every time that dog's mouth turned up into a silly grin.)
Do you ever remember a long, lonely summer, riding your bike along rural roads when the air barely moved and your friends seemed to have all gone away? The film captures this ethos and longing for friends very well. The acting on the part of the supporting cast, Cecily Tyson, Eva Marie Saint and Dave Matthews is rather average – with Dave Matthews speaking voice sounding much better than when he sings in the film.
The movie has charm and moral lessons galore: forgiveness, the consequences of alcoholism, the pain of being misunderstood and alone, being kind when you want to be mean and so forth.
There is theology in the film as well. Winn-Dixie is a symbol and means of grace for Opal and everyone they meet. Miss Franny, an elderly librarian played by Eva Marie Saint, gives Opal a special candy made by her great-grandfather after the Civil War. Not only does Miss Franny deliver a succinct commentary on the immorality of war, but the candy makes its way to all the characters and has a special ingredient that helps them understand themselves better so they can open up to friendship and community. I thought of Baptism and the Eucharist a lot as I watched this film.
If you saw the movie Ray, you will have noticed the frequent shots of bottles hanging from the trees. It’s interesting that both Ray and Because of Winn-Dixie take place in northern Florida, and both use this symbolism. Here’s a commentary on this tradition by Stephen Altman, the production designer for Ray
"We used an old sharecroppers plantation that still had most of the outbuildings intact. . . We also put in a "bottle tree" in one of the yards, which was used quite a lot for transitionsin thefilm. I had seen one of these in Mississippi, a few years earlier and it was intriguing. There are many versions about their African/West Indies origin. Some say they hold the souls of the white plantation masters, others that they keep the bad spirits or "ju-ju" away.
(From RAY: A Tribute to the Movie, the Music, and the Man, Foreword by Taylor Hackford, Preface by Jamie Fox New York: Newmarket Press, 2004, page 63.)
In Because of Winn-Dixie the bottle tree has special significance to the almost blind Gloria (Cicely Tyson) who hangs the old liquor bottles because they hold the "ghosts" of her previous alcoholism and they remind her of the good changes she has made in her life.
There’s a lot of transformation, forgiveness and joy going on in this film. I hope that all the people who want to encourage wholesome, pro-social, literate movies for children and families will give it their wholehearted support.
(I am not saying grown-ups will be riveted by the film, but after all, it’s not about us, is it? Or maybe it is - just a little bit.)