Wonderful 'Winn-Dixie'

Posted: Feb 27, 2005 12:00 AM

Hollywood has long defended the production of what many find offensive, dark and twisted programming by insisting it is providing only that which is demanded by the "market." The reverse is also proclaimed: Movies with positive, life-affirming messages are rarely made because the public isn't interested.

  Dr. Ted Baehr, founder of the Christian Film and Television Commission, has delivered a devastating indictment on what is, pure and simple, Tinseltown mythology.

 Last year, Hollywood released 28 movies with explicit sexual content, nine movies with very strong homosexual content, 10 movies with very strong politically correct content and 15 movies with very strong humanist, anti-religious worldviews, including "Kinsey." Baehr reported: "The movies with explicit sex earned less than $6.3 million on average. The movies with a very strong homosexual content earned even less than that, averaging about $1.2 million. The movies with very strong politically correct content averaged only $15.7 million, and the movies with very strong humanist worldviews averaged only $11.5 million."

  Baehr found these numbers "are in stark contrast to the average earnings of movies having strong Christian worldviews, with strong biblical conservative values, such as 'The Passion,' 'Ladder 49' and 'The Incredibles,' which averaged more than $106.8 million!" You can disagree with Baehr's worldview if you'd like, or quibble about his methodology if you want, but his conclusion still hits the bull's-eye: "It pays to distribute good, moral Christian movies with positive biblical values."

  The new moviemaking kid on the block, Walden Films, understands this truth -- and opportunity -- and is striking it big, once again, with its newest release, "Because of Winn-Dixie."

 You might think that the plot of this film is too formulaic for critics to tolerate -- rascally stray dog brings warmth to kid starting over in a new small town. But to children, the world of movies is brand new, and they should all be given warm childhood memories of seeing family films with a good heart, movies that didn't make them hide under their coats in fear or quiz Mom about the meaning of erectile-dysfunction jokes.

  Despite the fear of formula or saccharine-sweetness, the critics have been fairly positive. Premiere magazine's critic wrote about the dog: "Winn-Dixie is actually a great deal more special than you'd expect, a fitting analogy for a film no parent should be too quick to dismiss." With a strong number of theaters displaying the film, the first weekend box office results put the film in a strong third.

  The film's odd title comes from the scene when the main character, 10-year-old India Opal Buloni (just Opal for short) finds a stray dog in a Winn-Dixie supermarket and names the dog for the store in a moment of desperation. Opal and her dad have just moved to the little town of Naomi, Fla., leaving her friendless and still missing her mother, who left when she was only three.

 While her Baptist-minister dad, whom she calls "The Preacher," loves Opal, he is more focused on his preaching in the town's abandoned convenience store and the persistent pain of his wife's departure.

  As the film's title suggests, because of her companion Winn-Dixie, Opal meets new and somewhat withdrawn townsfolk at the library, the pet shop and a secluded house in the woods. Opal's engagement brings them out of their shells, and new friendships are made. In the end, Opal discovers more about her mother and finds a more open, more rewarding relationship with her father.

  Director Wayne Wang coaxes great performances out of actors who haven't been seen much at the movies lately (including Eva Marie Saint, Cicely Tyson and the surprising acting debut of rock star Dave Matthews). The actors were delighted to work on a film that sends a message of getting beyond preconceived notions of people we don't know and building a feeling of community.

  But Walden Media is looking to create more than a profitable picture. As a company, it is committed to creating quality movies that are "inherently educational. ... We connect entertainment and education to engage and inspire."

 For her part, "Winn-Dixie" author Kate DiCamillo is hoping the movie will take children to her book, and then on to many other books. How many parents dare to think of inspiring their children to read as they drive to the multiplex?

  Walden's next project is a big one, a live-action adaptation of the beloved children's classic "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," part of the "Chronicles of Narnia" series by C.S. Lewis.

 Hollywood has made a mint and driven people into the books of J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien and now, perhaps, Lewis. Parents ought to be buying more tickets for filmmakers who bring us stories that educate and inspire, and offering a little less to those storytellers who only terrify or titillate.