ARLINGTON, Va. - When it comes to movies, give me an adorable dog, a flawed father, a motherless girl-child with a heart the size of Disney World - toss in an eccentric dowager librarian and a Magical Negro (to borrow the term popularized by Spike Lee), not to mention Dave Matthews - and for two hours I'm all yours.
Especially if I'm 7 years old.
So goes the cast of characters in a new movie due for release Feb. 18 - "Because of Winn-Dixie" - that parents can take their children to without cringing. It's a sweet tale, full of humor 'n' tissue moments, about love, loss, friendship, family and redemption, all tossed with a smattering of gentle didacticism (we are all sinners; judge people by their fruits, not their roots).
There's nothing not to like about the film, which is aimed at second- through fifth-graders, and I welled up on cue at a recent screening. I'm a confessed sucker for flawed human hearts and winning dogs. Did I mention Dave Matthews? Parents will be grateful someone still makes movies like this.
Nevertheless, I come not to praise Winn-Dixie, but to note a certain cultural shift taking place under the discreet directorship of unassuming billionaire Philip Anschutz - invariably appearing in print as "Christian billionaire Phil Anschutz" - whose Walden Media co-produced "Winn-Dixie" with Twentieth Century Fox.
In a quick sidebar, have you noticed that Christians, like SUVs, are often identified these days? If an SUV is involved in an accident, the headline often mentions the make of the auto, the subtext being: Wouldn't you know it!? The evil, gas-guzzling, terrorist-supporting SUV murdered an elderly woman as she trudged home from the CVS with her dinner of Friskies cat food, which she purchased in lieu of the medicine she couldn't afford.
Which is Bush's fault.
Same with Christians, as if being Christian implies some nefarious or malevolent agenda, though I'm not sure what that might be. "Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz, disgusted with America's coarsening culture, has decided to infect the world with goodness, optimism, hope, forgiveness and charity."
The above-mentioned cultural shift isn't, of course, a one-man show, as demonstrated by the recent presidential election. Millions of Americans have lost patience with entertainment that degrades audiences. The shift also didn't turn on Janet Jackson's mammary moment, as trend-spotters are fond of saying.
Cultures aren't created or debased in a day, or a halftime show. Jackson was merely a focal point, a place to direct rage long simmering among responsible grown-ups bereft of options as they struggle to protect children against the sweep of raunch.
Anschutz, too, was one such adult, but he had an idea how to change the culture.
In addition to Walden Media, Anschutz owns, well, a lot. Dusting the tip of the iceberg, his portfolio includes several sports teams (the Colorado Rapids and the Los Angeles Kings among them), a phone and broadband service provider (Denver-based Qwest Communications International), several radio stations and various newspapers, including two tabloids, both named The Examiner, in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the latter of which debuted Feb. 1.
His greatest cultural impact, however, may be through his movies. Walden Media is run by education reformer Michael Flaherty and Cary Granat, former president of Miramax's Dimension Films, who shared a vision, embraced by Anschutz, of reaching kids by marrying education and entertainment.
Thus, Walden's movies are based on successful children's books and presented to educators as "field trips" with activity guides that encourage reading aloud and writing, as well as themes from the books. "Winn-Dixie," based on the popular book by Kate DiCamillo, advances the idea of volunteerism, for example.
Walden's first film was 2003's "Holes," based on Louis Sachar's novel. In December, Walden is releasing "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," based on (Christian writer but former atheist!) C.S. Lewis' beloved masterpiece.
The union of Anschutz with Walden seems to be one of those win-win-win propositions that drive cynics crazy while it inspires kids, motivates teachers, delights parents and, yes, makes even more moolah for Anschutz, thus diverting capital from other parental faves Britney Spears and Snoop Doggy Dog. I don't know what the G-rated Anschutz has up his sleeve next, but given the adorability of a dog named Winn-Dixie, I'd invest in some selective mutt breeding. Or perhaps Winn-Dixie grocery stores?