Adapted from a popular children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is a morality tale drained of all blood by director Wayne Wang. In the film, Opal (newcomer AnnaSophia Robb, soon to be seen in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and her father, Preacher (Jeff Daniels), arrive in the fictional town of Naomi, Florida, where the little girl has a difficult time making friends and continues to cope with the mysterious departure of her mother many years ago. At the local Winn-Dixie she claims ownership of a stray dog that will become the catalyst for the girl’s friendship with a number of eccentric locals: Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), a spinster who runs the local library; Gloria (Cicely Tyson), a blind woman and ex-drunk who the local children perceive to be a witch; and Otis (Dave Matthews), an ex-con who tends to his cousin’s pet store. The stories and anecdotes these adults relate to their young friend make for the film’s loveliest bits, none more evocative than Gloria’s explanation of how each liquor bottle that hangs from a tree in her backyard represents a sin from her past—these poetic rituals perpetuate healing and serve to bring everyone in the town together. Because Opal’s father is a preacher and just about everyone in town goes to the man’s service (held inside a food market that doubles for a church), it’s easy to read these moments as illustrations of Christian outreach, which they are in a way, except the film’s kindness really doesn’t have a denomination: It speaks to everyone, and it would be doing the film a great injustice if Christian reviewers laid claim to its heart. That said, as lovely and tender as the film’s message may be, Wang’s anemic direction makes it a tough sit. Martin Ritt, whose Sounder gave Tyson the performance her career, might have done a better job grappling with the poverty that seems to cripple Naomi’s people and buildings. What there is of a community in the film doesn’t register as such because Wang’s camera is focused so tightly on the film’s characters it can’t be bothered to absorb any of the local color. It’s like one half of a Willa Cather novel: The moral backbone is there but its social spine has been ripped out.
On this double-sided Because of Winn-Dixie DVD, there's a very subtle difference in quality between the film's full screen version (available on the disc's first side) and widescreen version (available on the flipside). The print is clean and colors are vibrant but there are some incidents of edge enhancement and other noise scattered throughout: Right at the beginning of Chapter 17, some ghost-like muck clings to Dave Matthews's shirt, which is a little less pronounced on the widescreen version. The sound, though, is just about perfect, boasting clear dialogue throughout and robust surrounds (listen to those bike wheels spin and the resonance they cast across the entire sound stage).
On the disc's first side you'll discover a featherweight behind-the-scenes featurette, a soundtrack promo, trailers for monstrosities like Garfield and Fat Albert, and scene-specific commentary by a lovely AnnaSophia Robb. Flip over to the second side for a laid-back and warm-hearted commentary by Jeff Daniels and producer Trevor Albert, a funny gag reel where a rat reigns supreme, a dog training featurette, and an Inside Look at the Ice Age sequel.
For anyone who's glad they made the Children's Day Society.