“Just about everything good that happened that summer happened because of Winn-Dixie,” says Opal, the young girl at the heart of “Because of Winn-Dixie.”

This family film, which opens nationwide today, is adapted from a popular children’s book of the same name and features an exceptional—and eclectic—cast. In addition to newcomer AnnaSophia Robb as Opal, “Winn-Dixie” stars Cicely Tyson, Eva Marie Saint, Jeff Daniels and musician Dave Matthews.


Opal’s father (Daniels) is the new preacher in a Florida town so beaten down that his church meets in a convenience store. No matter—behind the preacher stand the American flag on one side and the Christian flag on the other.


The movie, though, really isn’t about the preacher’s life at church. It’s about his relationship with his daughter and her relationship to the townsfolk she meets and befriends.


It’s just Opal and the preacher in their mobile home—no mother, and we’re not sure why until later in the film. Being in a new town, Opal could use a friend, and she makes one in Winn-Dixie, a mutt she meets in the local grocery store (hence the name).


The dog meets a need for Opal that her own father isn’t, and together Opal and Winn-Dixie start bringing various townspeople into each other’s lives. There’s Miss Franny (Saint), an elderly librarian who has books, not family; and Otis (Matthews), a loner who runs the pet shop and doesn’t say much; and Gloria Dump (Tyson), a blind woman that most of the kids are scared of.


Opal and Gloria become especially good friends because, as Opal says, “I could feel her listening with all her heart, and it felt good.”


Each of Opal’s new friends has a gift—listening, storytelling, singing—and with Opal and Winn-Dixie acting as a sort of social lubricant, those gifts have the potential to lift the town’s spirits.


“Because of Winn-Dixie” also adds a bit of magical realism having to do with lozenges that Miss Franny keeps in her library. That candy, it seems, has the ability to taste like an emotion, and as Opal says in apparent homage to Forrest Gump, “Life was like a Littmus Lozenge.” That is, it can be both sweet and sad, with separation of the two near impossible.


These weightier themes are offset by some hilarious moments of the preacher talking to his congregation, pets at Otis’ shop and a local cop who’s a dunce.


The score by Rachel Portman is spot-on, and the little bit of singing from Dave Matthews is like tasting one of those lozenges.


The ending of the film reminds one, in some ways, of “About a Boy” or “The Fighting Temptations.” Without saying much more, if people can come together, hope has a home.


And that’s all Opal—and Winn-Dixie—want.


Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.


MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and brief mild language. Reviewer’s Note: All ages should like this one.

Director: Wayne Wang

Writer: Joan Singleton (based on a novel by Kate DiCamillo)

Cast: Opal: AnnaSophia Robb; Preacher: Jeff Daniels; Otis: Dave Matthews; Gloria Dump: Cicely Tyson; Miss Franny: Eva Marie Saint.


The movie’s official Web site is here.

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