Sometimes it seemed to me that everybody in the whole world was lonely. I wondered if my momma, wherever she was, was lonely for me. Thinking about her was the same as the hole you keep feeling with your tongue after you lose a tooth. Time after time, my mind kept on going to that empty spot, the spot where I felt like she should be.
— India Opal Buloni (AnnaSophia Robb)
A big screen adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s children’s book, Because of Winn-Dixie is the best non-animated family movie in years. Working with care and respect for his source material, director Wayne Wang has crafted a sweet but never sickly movie that is built to last.
Like the book, this cinematic feel-good tear-jerker is a story of loneliness, memory, community, and redemption through friendship and love, played out by a fine cast that includes the potentially Dakota Fanning-busting AnnaSophia Robb. In her first outing beyond an occasional commercial, Robb gives a truly excellent performance as Opal, the 10-year-old child of a single father (Jeff Daniels) and itinerant preacher known only as “Preacher”. Entirely respectable updates of the Ryan and Tatum O’Neal’s characters in Paper Moon, Opal and Preacher have recently moved into the small Florida town of Naomi, where they are trying to cope with the permanent chasm left in their lives by Opal’s mother, who left when he child was three. Enter Winn-Dixie, a big ugly-beautiful dog with a sparingly used special effects grin.
As Daniels suggests on the DVD’s jolly but insight-free commentary track, Winn-Dixie is a representation of unconditional love and friendship. The dog leads Opal on an extended guided tour of the community of Naomi, introducing her to a number of friends-she-hadn’t-met-yet, each dislocated from society in some way, and Opal’s own good nature does the rest. Really, the title gives far too much credit to the endearing Winn-Dixie. Part Pollyanna, part Scout, part Laura Ingalls Wilder, India Opal Buloni is the small-town savior whose open-hearted friendship and curiosity work wonders in the lives of her new friends and manages finally even to rescue her own father from his sorrow.
Opal’s first friends are all adults. Otis (Dave Matthews) is a musical ex-con in charge of a pet store, shy almost to the point of autism. Miss Franny Block (Eva Marie Saint) is an elderly spinster librarian of private means who thinks her town has lost its heart. Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson) is an aging alcoholic in recovery, nearly blind but all-seeing in her wisdom. Each of Opal’s adult friends in turn inadvertently bridges the gap between her and the few children we see in Naomi. Otis’ music and animals work the trick on Sweetie Pie Thomas (Elle Fanning). Miss Franny’s tales of the Civil War and her cousin’s almost magical candy (curiously, Robb’s second movie role was Violet Beauregarde in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) creates a friendship between Opal and the previously “stuck-up” Amanda Wilkinson (Courtney Jines), whose haughty reserve turns out to have been grief at the death of her brother. And Gloria Dump brings the none-too-awful Dewberry brothers (Nick Price and Luke Benward) into the fold by insisting that Opal invites them to the party that provides the climax of the movie.
Opal also invites her landlord, Mr. Alfred (BJ Hopper) to the party. A brave move, considering that he is the closest thing to the villain of this particular piece. However, even he has been brought around by Winn-Dixie. But it’s Preacher who howls longest in his loneliness. Feeling he failed both Opal and her mother because he couldn’t save his marriage from his wife’s alcoholism, Preacher can’t bring himself to attend Opal’s party at Gloria’s wonderful grotto of a house. But then when Winn-Dixie disappears in a sudden Southern thunderstorm, his guilt is finally washed away by his love for Opal and — guess who? — Winn-Dixie.
If this DVD package has a weakness, it’s feeble extras. The commentary by Daniels and producer Trevor Albe adds nothing. Robb’s commentary for a handful of scenes reveals that she liked the dog, acting can be hard work, and lots of the things that look funny on the screen were funny while filming. Even the promising featurette on dog training, “Diamond in the Ruff”, provides precious little insight into a fascinating subject, other than to reveal that Winn-Dixie was played by two Picardy Shepherds, Lyco (action shots) and Scott (the softer, more intimate scenes), imported from France specially for the movie. Says Daniels, “That dog couldn’t speak a word of English when it arrived in the country.”
But nobody will be buying this DVD for the additional features. Simple, kind, honest, and unpatronising, Because of Winn-Dixie handles the friendship between Opal and her mutt quite perfectly, using it as a fulcrum for rearranging her human relationships to the benefit of all involved. It’s a worthy newcomer to the tradition.