Because of Winn-Dixie is a good movie: good as entertainment, good for the whole family, good artistically. It is also morally good, even spiritually good. Not many movies are as satisfying in all of these ways.
Based on the beloved children's book by Kate Dicamillo, the movie is about a 10-year-old girl and her dog. But while it has the virtues and kids' entertainment value of other dog movies, there is much more to this one.
Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) is the daughter of a preacher (Jeff Daniels) in a rural Southern town. They live in a trailer park. Opal's mother abandoned them when she was 3, and her father is still too hurt to talk about her and why she left. Opal finds a stray dog, which she calls Winn-Dixie from the grocery store where she found him.
Because of the dog, she gets to know a mentally handicapped man who works at a pet store, a spinster librarian, and an old lady her schoolmates call a witch. Opal learns that they are all (like her) lonely, that the people around her (like her) have some deep-down sorrow or guilt. The dog becomes a catalyst for healing, forgiveness, and an explicitly Christian redemption.
The movie is realistic and richly textured, with not a trace of condescension to people who live in trailer parks, live in a small Southern town, and attend store-front churches. Opal's father is kind, loving, and a man of faith, even though he has been deeply wounded. Opal herself, with her "yes, sirs" and "yes, ma'ams," has all the charm of her region and a lively personality of her own. The movie is funny and serious at the same time. Christianity is a seamless part of life, evident in the father's Bible, the church where even the dog goes, symbols like the tree on which the old lady hangs her sins, and hymns of praise about how "I laid my burden down."
Because of Winn-Dixie is the latest release from Walden Media, whose mission is to make family-friendly, morally positive films. This is the best effort so far.