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Because of Walden Media, comment (0)

January 21, 2005

Something strange is going on in the town of Naomi, Fla.  An orphaned dog named Winn-Dixie (for the store where he was found) is transforming the place.  The dog makes friends with people who can’t make friends with each other, and by movie’s end brings these people together in a kind of Eucharistic feast, complete with Gospel music and a shared meal.
This is a summary of the movie “Because of Winn-Dixie,” but it could almost be a description of what the film’s producer, Walden Media, is trying to do in Hollywood.
First, though, to the movie.  “Because of Winn-Dixie” follows a tried and true path for Hollywood:  if you base the movie on a successful children’s book, you’ll have a built-in audience.  But this book is no “Harry Potter.”  “Because of Winn-Dixie” (the book) sold well, but it wasn’t a blockbuster.  It is, rather, children’s literature.  It’s one of those books that parents and teachers want their children to read, not one they try to keep them from reading.  It won the 2001 Newbery Honor, and a whole rash of other awards.  The movie aspires to the book’s “gravitas.”  Indeed, screen legends Cicily Tyson and Eva Marie Saint, both of whom play ancient eccentrics, let you know that this movie intends to do justice to the higher aspirations of the book.
And for the most part, it succeeds.  The centerpiece of the movie is newcomer AnnaSophia Robb, who plays 10-year-old Opal.  She begins by telling, in a voiceover, how during her first lonely summer in Naomi she prayed for God to send her friends, and how through Winn-Dixie (the dog), God answered her prayer.  Jeff Daniels does a credible job as Opal’s father, a troubled preacher who lost his wife, Opal’s mother, to alcohol and is trying to bring new energy to his own life and to a small church – presumably the only parish this broken-down preacher can now get – that meets in a convenience store.  
As the story unfolds, we learn everyone’s dark secrets and their special gifts.  Jam band leader Dave Matthews plays Otis, just out of jail and now the manager of a pet store in Naomi.  When Otis plays his music, the raucous animals calm down.  So it is with all the characters.
This movie is not perfect.  There is a deputy sheriff who does an over-the-top Barney Fife – as if Barney Fife wasn’t over-the-top enough.  But these are quibbles.  “Because of Winn-Dixie” is a movie that treats religion seriously and positively, and does so without sugar-coating human nature.  This is a movie that kids will like, and adults will like them to see.
And that takes us to Walden Media.  This production company has quietly begun partnering with mainstream Hollywood companies to champion projects for the Christian market.  Walden will be bringing out “The Chronicles of Narnia” later this year, in cooperation with Disney.  “I Am David” is another recent Walden effort, as is “Holes,” both of which were based on critically acclaimed novels. The money behind Walden is Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, and the brains behind the operation include people who have solid movie, education, and – in some cases – Christian credentials, including Michael Flaherty and Cary Granat, who used to lead Miramax.  Walden recently signed a multi-picture production deal with Twentieth-Century Fox.
None of Walden’s movies have been blockbusters, though “Holes” created a bit of buzz and “Narnia” is already generating anticipation in both the secular and Christian media.  But all of Walden’s movies – including “Winn Dixie” – have been the kind of movie that have “legs.” That is, they should be perennial sellers on the DVD market, as teachers and others show them to their classes for years to come.
All in all, these are reasons enough to go see “Because of Winn-Dixie”: You can pass an entertaining two hours, and you can see what a very clever bunch of movie producers are up to. (EP)
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