For a good, old-fashioned family movie, this one has it all: a timeless small town, a cute little girl, a well-meaning but distracted Dad, a few colorful secondary characters, and a dog who has an amazing capacity for bringing the humans closer together.
Annasophia Robb plays Opal, the pig-tailed 10-year old with the skinny legs and the big, blue innocent eyes and a wise-beyond-her-years outlook. She moves to this small town because her Dad (Jeff Daniels) is the new preacher. The church is just forming, and is meeting in a convenience store.
Opal describes her Dad, whom she also calls “Preacher”, as a tortoise always going back inside its shell. He seems to spend a lot of time in their mobile home reading the Bible, but not much time going out and seeing people. He’s sad because his wife, Opal’s Mom, left him several years ago, he says, because she couldn’t stand being a preacher’s wife. So his resentment of his profession hangs with him along with his gritty determination to keep doing it, because he’s already paid too high a price not to continue.
The people at the church don’t seem to enjoy each other very much. For that matter, the people in the town don’t seem to enjoy each other very much, either.
Opal meets the stray dog at the grocery store, giving everybody fits by running down the aisles, knocking over displays and spreading ripe fruit on the floor. When they threaten to call the pound, she claims the dog is hers, and when they demand to know his name, she says the first thing that pops into her head: the sign on the store that says “Winn-Dixie.” The dog is her first real friend in town. But the dog is also her entrée to other isolated people, and soon she has made friends of not only the lonely adults, but also the scattered kids her age, all of whom seem to have sad stories of their own.
In a way, “Winn-Dixie” is a melancholy film. Nevertheless, there’s always hope: that a caring community can be formed from a motley collection of individuals, they can learn to be friends and care about each other, they can gather to have fellowship, and sing a hymn or two, and feel that others are with them. It sounds a lot like the church, without church life, per se, being the focal point.
“Because Of Winn-Dixie” is one of those heart-warming family films that does take itself too seriously at times, but also features plenty of G-rated humor, and manages to generate a certain nostalgia for a way of life that exists mostly in either long-term memory or fanciful imagination.
RON SALFEN is pastor of Westminster Church in Dallas, Texas.