By JANE WILSON, Special Contributor | Published February 17, 2005
Although aimed at a children’s audience, “Because of Winn-Dixie” is a charming film that will entertain viewers of all ages.
The film was directed by Wayne Wang, who is primarily known for his more adult fare such as “Smoke,” “The Joy Luck Club” and “Anywhere but Here,” and based on the Newbery-Medal-winning book by Kate DiCamillo. “Because of Winn-Dixie” is the story of 10-year-old India Opal Buloni, who has recently moved to Naomi, a small Florida town. The young girl is terribly lonely because she has had to leave behind all of her friends, and the other children she has met in Naomi do not seem to be likely candidates to be new friends. To make matters worse, her father, the new town preacher, is kind but emotionally distant, and her mother left the family many years ago.
Opal’s situation changes the day she meets a stray dog in the local Winn-Dixie grocery store. The pair adopt each other, and Opal names the dog in honor of the store. Winn-Dixie turns out to be the kind of dog that “knows how to be a friend,” and the pair spend the summer exploring the town. Winn-Dixie also knows how to make friends and how to push Opal into doing the same. As they get to know the people of Naomi, Opal learns how to go beyond surface impressions to truly get to know people and appreciate their individuality. Along the way, the little girl and her father draw closer together, and he comes out of his own sadness to give Opal the emotional support she needs to accept the loss of her mother.
Religion is present throughout the film in a matter-of-fact and positive way. Opal’s father is a preacher, and several of the scenes are set at his makeshift church, which used to be a convenience store. A belief in God and prayer is shown and accepted as a part of the characters’ lives, and the film promotes values such as accepting God’s will and loving one’s fellow man.
The filmmakers do an excellent job with the location and the design. Filmed in Napoleonville, La. “Because of Winn-Dixie” seems set in a place that is realistic as a sleepy Florida town in the heat of summer but is full of wonder if you know how to look for it. At one point in the story, Opal draws a picture of the town in stark black and white. As she learns more about the people who live in Naomi and as she and Winn-Dixie make connections in the town, her picture becomes more colorful and inviting. At the climax of the film, Opal holds a party to bring her new friends together at the home of Gloria Dump. The transformation of the ramshackle home and each of the lonely characters is nothing short of magical.
“Because of Winn-Dixie” is filled with well-turned performances. AnnaSophia Robb, in her first full-length film, gives a very realistic performance as Opal. The young actress is earnest, yet playful, and manages to be adorable without being cloying. As Opal’s father, Jeff Daniels is reliably good. The preacher obviously cares about his daughter but finds it hard to open up to her due to the hurt he still feels because of his wife’s abandonment. Of course, the dog playing Winn-Dixie gives a winning performance and provides the many moments of humor in the film.
Naomi is filled with eccentric townsfolk, and Opal and Winn-Dixie charm them all. Popular musician Dave Matthews does a fine job as the mysterious loner, Otis, who runs the local pet shop. Opal discovers that music is the key to his personality. Veterans Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint play the two women Opal befriends—Gloria Dump, a recluse, and Miss Franny, the librarian. Opal learns that the women are not as forbidding as she first believes. The other children in the town (Courtney Jines, Elle Fanning, Luke Bernard and Nick Price) also give realistic, well-rounded performances.
“Because of Winn-Dixie” is a quiet story; there are no grand revelations or earth-shaking twists. It is, however, a lovely tale of how a group of people are brought together and learn to appreciate the joy and comfort that friendship can bring. Opal learns that joy and sadness go together to give life its flavor, and she learns how to reach out to others to share both. The film presents her journey in a way that is both entertaining and touching.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.