(2005) dir. Wayne Wang
A weekend night with both my kids and the girls upstairs with no plans for a movie but in good need of a movie. At the house, there were two films on DVD from Netflix with a kids’ bent, The Last Starfighter (1984) and Because of Winn-Dixie. I remembered The Last Starfighter from my own teenagehood with some warmth, but thinking through the quartet of kids that I had to entertain, an animal movie, for better or worse, would fly better on the whole whereas the other might please me and a couple of the kids more. So, animal movie it was.
I recalled when this film came out, that it had been adapted from a children’s book of the same name, the story of a dog found in and named for a Southern Winn-Dixie grocery store who comes to charm and positively change the lives of an entire town. These types of films can be good or very very bad. Usually the latter. But I decided to watch the whole thing with them.
The latter it was.
The always likeable Jeff Daniels is “the preacher”, the single father to the 10 year old daughter who narrates the film. The fact that she calls him “the preacher” as often as she calls him “dad”, struck me as odd, but a preacher he was in the small town of Naomi, FL, whose church is a former and hardly altered convenience store. And with that preacher comes quite a bit of down-home Christian homilies about the nature of happiness and love.
You see, India Opal Buloni (played by AnnaSophia Robb), was abandoned by her mother at age 3 and having just moved to Naomi with “the preacher” is lonely for friendship. She prays for one. And up shows the mop of a dog, who she names Winn-Dixie suddenly, in trying to extricate him from a romp he’s just had in a store of the same name. And though both “the preacher” and their landlord in their trailer park are against the dog, the dog warms the hearts of all and leads Opal on a journey around town, meeting and befriending other lonely folk, including the town librarian (Eva Marie Saint), the half-blind hermit (Cicely Tyson), and the scruffy pet store keeper who’s spent some time in jail and is given the bum’s rush by the cops (Dave Matthews, yes, that Dave Matthews.)
With several moments of intended slap-stick that fail flatly intertwined with moments of getting in touch with one’s own melancholy (see, everyone in the town is a little ostracised and lonely because of some past sadness), the film weaves its way through moment after moment of joys and homey wisdom. Matthews plays his guitar and all the animals just listen to him. A little girl declares him “magic man”.
And they all come together at the end and sing hymnals.
The film is not godawful but it’s pretty nauseating. The religious themes are predominant but not dominating yet inescapable. And most of the way through it, the film felt like it could easily have been made for Hallmark television. It’s predictable nature and pat simplicity (with the exception of the oddly Magical Realism-like story about the candy factory that made candy whose secret ingredient was “sorrow”) doesn’t make me want to recommend this really to anyone.
But the kids all liked it. They found the melancholy affecting, feeling sad that Opal’s mom never returns. Even with the happy ending. I could have done without the film, myself. But at least it didn’t include any flatulence jokes. And that’s something in a kids movie starring a dog.