Video Picks & Passes






Because of Winn-Dixie: Accessible treatment of themes relating to a broken marriage and alcohol abuse. Old Yeller: Menacing situations and a wrenching climax that may be hard on young viewers. Lassie Come Home: Some mild menace and a scene of violence in which a dog is killed.

Faithfully adapted from the popular Newbery Honor novel by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is a good family film frequently verging on being an excellent one. Although it includes enough sporadic slapstick to keep even the youngest viewers reasonably entertained, Because of Winn-Dixie is really about young Opal (Annasophia Robb) and her summer of discovery in the new town into which that she and her preacher father (Jeff Daniels) have moved.

Following the book, Because of Winn-Dixie addresses tough themes — broken families and alcoholism — in a way that is appropriate and accessible to children. Its themes of community and healing are framed in a Christian milieu defined above all by Opal’s father, a rare sympathetic clergyman who prays and preaches, but is an ordinary and quite fallible guy. Like Miss Franny’s semi-magical candies, Because of Winn-Dixie is both sweet and sad, a blend that does the heart good.

Old Yeller occupies a unique place in our cultural heritage. “It’s not just a dog story,” writes Annie Dingus in Texas Monthly, “it’s a rite of passage for American children.” Some parents are reluctant to let their children have pets, in part because pets die. I think children should have pets, in part for the same reason. There are things to shelter children from, but we do them no favors trying to shield them from sorrow, which amounts to shielding them from life.
If any family film does a better job of making that lesson accessible to children, I don’t know what it is. Rousing, heartbreaking and rewarding, Old Yeller is a coming-of-age tale about a boy learning to face tragedy and loss, and to do what must be done even when it breaks your heart. But heartbreak doesn’t have the final word; the emphasis in the end is on what has been gained, not what has been lost.

The story was adapted by Fred Gipson from his own novel, which was based on a real incident involving Gipson’s grandfather. Set in post-Civil War Texas, the film tells the story of a stray dog who befriends and repeatedly helps a poor family of homesteaders. Most of this is run-of-the-mill Disney; what makes Old Yeller more is not only the gut-wrenching climax, but also the remarkably well-done uplift of the denouement. Old Yeller is a film that parents should watch with their children, and talk about afterwards, as Travis’ father reflects on the film’s events with his son.

As Old Yeller is the classic story of a boy and his dog, Lassie Come Home is the classic story of a dog and her boy. Adapted faithfully from Eric Knight’s beloved novel, Lassie is a dog story from the dog’s point of view. Abetted by the duke of Rudling’s niece (a precious 10-year-old Elizabeth Taylor), Lassie embarks on a journey back to her master Joe Carraclough (14-year-old Roddy McDowall) in which she will face hostile dogs, suspicious herdsmen, and even bandits and dogcatchers, along with more sympathetic individuals who will help her complete her journey.

As comforting as Old Yeller is bittersweet, Lassie Come Home benefits from the source material’s sure sense of time and place. Despite his family’s poverty, Joe’s happy ending doesn’t hinge on a change in their fortunes. Winning the lottery couldn’t have made him feel as lucky as Lassie coming home.

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