KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–Who isn’t a sucker for a good dog-and-his/her-sidekick story?
“Because of Winn-Dixie,” which opens in theaters Feb. 18, is the latest winner in this tried-and-true genre.
Even USA Today topped its review with the headline, “‘Winn-Dixie’ is a winner,” describing the film as “a sweet, family-friendly retelling of a touching and funny Newbery Award-winning children’s book.”
USA Today described the film as “close enough to the original work to please most fans, and it’s sufficiently entertaining for those unfamiliar with Kate DiCamillo’s story.”
Because of Winn-Dixie’s storyline centers around a lonely 10-year-old girl, abandoned by her alcoholic mother and ignored by her grieving minister father, who prays for a friend. Soon after, an energetic stray pooch scampers his way into her heart while she shops for macaroni and cheese at the local Winn-Dixie. As the two bond, she finds that they are having a positive effect on the friendless and disenfranchised in her small, rural community, as well as her own troubled relationship with her father.
The film is the latest venture from Walden Media, a relatively unknown film company that has produced some significant fare -– such as “Holes,” “Around the World in 80 Days” or “I Am David.”
Walden Media’s aim in those and other films is to entertain family audiences, while also helping to encourage kids to embrace the world of literature. What’s more, its co-founder is a believer.
Micheal Flaherty (I didn’t have the nerve to ask him why he inverts the ae in his given name), along with one-time college friend Cary Granat (I kid you not), formed Walden Media five years ago with the purpose of making great films from celebrated literature.
“My partner, Cary Granat, had once been the president of Dimension Films, making mostly R-rated horror movies. But he had a young daughter and he wanted to make something that she could enjoy, that he could bring his whole family to.
“I was doing things in the world of education and was trying to find ways to make learning more interesting to kids,” Flaherty continued. “Together we formed a company that would produce good stories that didn’t shy away from spiritual truths.
“We constructed a business plan to make films based on great historical subjects (‘The Question of God’), IMAX films that would make science come alive (‘Aliens of the Deep’) and feature films based on books kids were reading in school (‘The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’),” Flaherty said.
“We got laughed at by every venture capital office from New York to San Francisco. And then finally we met Phil Anschutz, who understood what we were doing right away and did a lot to help develop our vision.”
The direction of Walden Media is not taken lightly by the company’s founders. “We want to be the next great trusted brand for families, particularly for teachers, libraries and parents,” Flaherty said. “And we have to deliver on our mission to use the film and the book to make learning more exciting for kids.”
Asked why he wanted to add to a movie genre already stuffed with classics like “Lassie Come Home,” “Ladd A Dog” and “My Dog Skip,” Flaherty said there is always room for one more dog-lovers’ movie: “I love the story because I’m a dog lover and I think it has a great message about how we are all broken and we should share each other’s burden and each other’s joy.
“20th Century Fox already had the rights and we begged to let us come in and co-produce it and they were nice enough to bring us aboard. And I am very happy with the outcome.”
As for the studio’s I Am David, which won festival awards and raves from reviewers but was missed by most filmgoers, Flaherty recounted that Lions Gate was the distributor “and they had a strategy to start with a limited release, hoping it would gain some popularity. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in major markets like Boston, Los Angeles or New York. But it’s coming out in DVD this spring and we’re happy because we have a great number of educational materials that go along with the film.” (Go to walden.com website for further details.)
I Am David is a powerful film adaptation of Anne Holm’s internationally acclaimed novel “North to Freedom,” about a 12-year-old boy who escapes a communist labor camp and is thrust into the free world for the first time in his young life. His trek across Europe is a physical test of will as well as a spiritual voyage during which he slowly sheds his cynical view of humanity and begins to trust and, ultimately, love.
Walden Media has even bigger projects ahead. The C.S. Lewis allegory “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” will be released in December. “The last two versions didn’t really measure up to the power of the story,” Flaherty said. “We didn’t cut any corners. I think we succeeded in getting the best directing, writing and special effects talents possible.
“Andrew Adamson is directing. It’s his first live action film after having success as co-writer/co-director of ‘Shrek’ and ‘Shrek II.’ And our special effects and creature development man is fresh from doing ‘Lord of the Rings.’”
As for Because of Winn-Dixie, the film manages to charm even us old fogies. Its main strengths: a floppy-eared canine who appears to be able to smile, and newcomer AnnaSophia Robb, a preteen with smudged knees, bright, saucer eyes and a sincere demeanor. (Little Miss Robb also will be featured in Warner Bros.’ “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” scheduled for release in July.)
Despite the low budget and occasional corny comedy, Because of Winn-Dixie develops into a well-told story about a child’s coping with her mother’s desertion. Without being preachy, it addresses poignant themes, including reaching out to others and how small thoughtfulness can alter a life. What’s more, it achieves these goals while never neglecting its aim of amusing the child in all of us.
While rated PG, Because of Winn-Dixie is respectful of Christian values (there’s even a reverent prayer that acknowledges our Lord), while the closest it gets to harsh language is the expression, “What in the Sam Hill is going on?” Younger ones should be accompanied by a parent to dispel any fears at a juncture in the film when the dog is frightened by a thunderstorm and later when Winn-Dixie gets lost.
Oh by the way, do you have a dog? If not, expect to hear, “Daddy, can we….”