I'm not sure I would have watched this 2005 family film, "Because of Winn-Dixie," if my good friend and DVD Town colleague Tim Raynor hadn't recommended it. As I remember, he said he took his young daughter to see it and ended up liking it himself. I have to admit I found it rather touching as well, although without a young daughter to prompt me, I'm sure I wasn't as impressed as I might have been.
Given the dearth of good family pictures these days, "Because of Winn-Dixie" is probably as good a bet for kids as one will find among recent releases. However, I wouldn't put it ahead of movies like "Lassie Come Home" or "Old Yeller," classic dog stories that should be considered before any thoughts of a "Winn-Dixie" enter one's mind. It isn't that "Winn-Dixie" is a bad movie; it's well constructed and well executed. But like so many scripts on similar subjects, it doesn't add much that's new to the formula. We get the same tired plot involving the same tired characters: the divorced dad, the cute kid, the even cuter dog, the mischief, the grief, the heartache, and the uplifting finale. Disney could have made it as an after-school special almost any day of the week.
It's surprising, then, that the film came from 20th Century Fox and director Wayne Wang, whose previous movies include "The Joy Luck Club," "The Center of the World," and "Maid in Manhattan." Maybe the man is just trying to lighten up and diversify. Or maybe he needed the money; who knows. In any case, he's made a predictably light, frothy movie out of Kate DiCamillo's best-selling children's novel.
I haven't read the book, so I don't know how closely it follows the chapters, but I do know the movie is rather episodic in nature. There is little narrative thread holding any of its tangential events together except the story of a little ten-year-old girl, Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), seeking to make friends in a new town. The dog, Winn-Dixie, is the first friend she meets.
Why is she new in town? Because her single dad is a preacher, and his church moves him around a lot. The girl, like the others in the film, refers to her father only as "the preacher" (Jeff Daniels). Her mom left Opal and the dad early on in Opal's life because she hated being a preacher's wife. Why is the dog Winn-Dixie called Winn-Dixie? Because Opal finds the dog homeless in a supermarket named Winn Dixie. She apparently threw in the hyphen, and the dog got its name.
The small, rural town they move into is Naomi, Florida, population 2524, where the preacher sets up shop in a former convenience store turned chapel: the Open Arms Baptist Church. The church also arranges accommodations for the two of them, plus Winn-Dixie, at a local trailer park, where the cranky old owner is not keen on dogs. Well, neither is the dad at first, either.
I like Jeff Daniels; and the dog is cute, as I've said. But I have reservations about the girl, Ms. Robb. She seems much too precious to me, like a little girl attempting too hard to act like a little girl rather than just being herself. But like most everything else in the movie, Ms. Robb grows on you. Either that or she learns to act better by the end of the film.
The various segments of the movie are loosely connected by Opal's wanting to meet new friends and by the dog getting into minor trouble. There's not much more to it than that. Fortunately, the secondary characters are of some interest and well played. There's Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), for instance, a blind lady who lives alone on the edge of town and who the town's children think is a witch. Obviously, she turns out to be a very kind and generous person. There's Otis (Dave Matthews), who runs a pet store and once spent time in jail. He soothes the animals and the soul with his guitar picking. There's Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), the spinster librarian with a hundred-and-one tales to tell. There's Mr. Alfred (B.J. Hopper), the aforementioned trailer-park owner, whose bark is worse than his bite. And there's the sheriff (Harland Williams), a touch of comic relief.
No, the narrative flow may not be smooth, just a series of disjointed adventures with various people, but they're appealing little adventures, accompanied by ultra-sweet background music and songs. The movie is quite inoffensive, and I can't imagine why it got a PG rather than a straight G rating. A scene in the church is especially felicitous, with the dog spontaneously chasing a mouse through the congregation. OK, they call it a mouse; I call it a rat, it's that big.
Moreover, by the film's final third it develops the semblance of a theme. Miss Franny offers Opal some candy made by a candy factory that used to operate in the town. The confection tastes both "sweet and sad" at the same time. The candy becomes a metaphor for how everybody's got a little sweet and a little sour in their lives, and how sometimes it's hard to separate them out.
By the time the film's climax rolls around, things get even more sentimental and melancholy, as Opal helps to bring various of the townsfolk together in love and harmony. I don't know how one can criticize so inspiring a notion as that, except to say it's all been done before and better. Still and all, "Because of Winn-Dixie" does no harm, and it should appeal to younger children while charming more than a few adults along the way. It ain't "Batman," but it is what it is, an unpretentious family film.
The movie is presented in two screen formats, 1.33:1 and 1.85:1 anamorphic, located on flip sides of a single disc. The fullscreen is, as you might suspect, a pan-and-scan affair, cutting off about twenty per cent or so of the image left and right in order to fill up a standard-sized television screen. I watched in the widescreen mode, which measured out about 1.78:1, the size of a widescreen television. In widescreen, the picture's colors looked good, bright and deep, with fairly decent definition. But I noted a few moiré effects, shimmering lines, which along with some small degree of grain lent the image a slightly rough appearance. Darker indoor shots looked a bit murky to me as well.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound reproduction only opens up the surround channels on a couple of occasions, the most notable being one in the pet shop when the animals are set loose. Most of the time, we have to be content with a little musical ambiance enhancement and front-channel stereo alone, with the center channel getting the brunt of the work. Nevertheless, it's clean sound, well balanced, sporadically showing its dynamic range and impact in louder things like thunder claps.
The extras are spread over both sides of the disc, with no indication on the keep case as to where to find them. So, you'll have to look around and remember the next time you want to play a specific feature. On the widescreen side, you'll find a full-length audio commentary by actor Jeff Daniels and producer Trevor Albert that is pretty typical of the breed. It seems intended for adults, which is why, I suppose, it's on the widescreen side, the assumption being that kids would only want to play the fullscreen version. I don't know why the assumption is made. Then, there's a two-minute gag reel, followed by a three-minute featurette, "Diamond in the Ruff," which tells us something about the dog training in the film. On the fullscreen side are five scene-specific commentaries by actress AnnaSophia Robb, which I suppose are intended for children to listen to. And there's a four-minute promotional featurette, "Behind-the-Scenes With Winn-Dixie," which provides little new information about the filmmaking except a couple of remarks from the director. A brief "Inside Look at Ice Age 2" and twenty-four scene selections (minus a chapter insert) complete the package. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken language options, with English and Spanish subtitles.
The double-sided disc comes housed in a standard plastic keep case, further enclosed in a colorful, embossed, cardboard slipcover.
If it's Jeff Daniels and animals you're looking for, and you don't have impressionable children in your family who scare easily, then "Arachnophobia" is the better movie. But that's neither here nor there. As it turns out, "Because of Winn-Dixie" is more about the little girl than it is about the dog. In fact, the poor dog is almost extraneous to the story most of the time. Yet, as Opal points out at the end, we wouldn't even have a story if it wasn't because of Winn-Dixie.