It’s a dark and stormy night.
Suddenly, the dog leaps up on his young mistress’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 peform 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, Florida, including young India Opal Buloni (newcomer Annasophia Robb) and her father (Jeff Daniels), a struggling Baptist preacher and single dad who always changes the subject whenever Opal asks about her mother.
Faithfully adapted from the popular Newbery 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 suggested by the trailers.
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. A few supporting characters have been added and a few plot points changed, but the film, directed by Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan), cements Walden’s commitment to producing faithful adaptations of quality children’s literature. (Walden was also responsible for last year’s uneven I Am David — and, of course, this year’s much-anticipated The Lion, The Witch & the Wardrobe.) It’s a shame Walden didn’t beat Disney to the punch on the latter’s recent Tuck Everlasting, which was substantially diminished by a number of departures from the book.
Opal and her father, simply called the Preacher, are newcomers to the not especially welcoming fictional community of Naomi (the film was actually shot in Napoleonville, Louisiana). 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 that 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 sporadic beastiary slapstick 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 his mistress, much less solve other people’s problems. In fact, the secret of Winn-Dixie’s success is simply the secret that has 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” and who (like Ray Charles’s mother in one of the childhood memory sequences in Ray) has a tree in her back yard from which countless empty liquor bottles dangle on strings.
The film makes a few missteps here. Among the characters it introduces is a slapstick yokel cop who is suspicious of the drifter Otis and suggests that he may have something to do with the fact that the owner of the pet shop, Miss Gertrude, doesn’t seem to be around. 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 on earth I’d let my 10-year-old daughter spend hours alone with an unknown drifter ex-con who may or may not be squatting in a pet shop whose owner may or may not be missing.
These issues could easily have been patched up in the third act, 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 on its warm, fuzzy humanism on its sleeve, nowhere more so 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 / childhood memory / fantasy sequences that put to shame similar fantasy sequences in another current film, the (in my opinion) over-praised Best Picture nominee Finding Neverland.
The comparison is heightened by the fact that in both films the first fantasy / imagination sequence involves a bear. The bear footage in Finding Neverland for me lacks the necessary playfulness and whimsy, being clumsily intercut with Johnny Depp and his English sheepdog. By contrast, the effect in Because of Winn-Dixie is more pleasing. There’s also a terrifically imaginative fantasy shot involving a Volkswagen Beetle that beats hollow anything in Finding Neverland. And dim, grainy footage of Opal’s mother, barely glimpsed playing peekaboo 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 defined above all by the Preacher, a rare sympathetic clergyman who prays and preaches but is above all an ordinary and quite fallible guy.
Like Miss Franny’s semi-magical candies, Because of Winn-Dixie is both sweet and sad, a blend that does the heart good.
Lassie is a rare family film that knows that kids live in a grown-up world, that they are not isolated from such realities as unemployment or war, and can relate to the problems of adult characters as well as those of children and animals.
If Snow Dogs is a fairly typical example of the conventional Hollywood idea of a live-action family film, Eight Below is a typical example of a new trend in family films that includes National Treasure, Hidalgo, Two Brothers, Fantastic Four and The Legend of Zorro. This is a good thing, but not yet good enough.
"It’s not just a dog story," writes Annie Dingus in Texas Monthly, "it’s a rite of passage for American children." She is right. "Who saw Old Yeller?" Bill Murray asks a bunch of American soldiers in Stripes, trying to define our national spirit. "Who cried when Old Yeller got shot at the end? Nobody cried when Old Yeller got shot? I’m sure. I cried my eyes out!" And on NBC’s "Friends," ditsy Phoebe had a sudden unpleasant revelation as she realized that all her life her parents had always turned off the film before the climax, sparing her the film’s heartbreak — but also its life-affirming wisdom.
The obstacle to this duty, of course, is that Joe’s father Sam (Donald Crisp) is eventually forced out of financial necessity to sell Lassie to the wealthy Duke of Rudling (Nigel Bruce). However, Lassie twice escapes from the the duke’s disagreeable handler Hynes (J. Patrick O’Malley) in order to keep her appointment with Joe, and eventually the duke takes Lassie to an estate in Scotland, over a thousand miles from her home.
Benji Off the Leash is undoubtedly the first dog movie ever made that thinks that a happy ending for a boy and his dog is not for the boy to get to keep the dog, but for the dog to go off to Hollywood to make a motion picture.
Annaud’s skill and subtlety elevate what is essentially a simple, fable-like throwback to the sort of live-action feature Disney used to make in the 1950s.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.