Saturday, October 08, 2005


Finding good and wholesome family entertainment in this day and age is like searching for the holy grail sometimes. We keep hoping it is out there somewhere, but it is ever so hard to find. Two exceptions to this rule can be found in two movies recently released on DVD--- 'Because of Winn Dixie' and 'Robots', the former a child and her dog movie the latter an animated feature which derives its zing from the ultimate zing master---- Robin Williams. Rather than reviewing and ruining the plot for those who have not seen them, it will be best if I just talk about the elements that make these stories work. Suffice it to say that these movies are user friendly for Christians.

In the case of 'Because of Winn Dixie' the cute factor is prominent--- both the little girl and her dog are hard not to love. But the story actually has some poignancy because, amazingly enough, we have a positive portrayal of a minister struggling to be a good single parent, effectly portrayed by Jeff Daniels. It is a relief not to see a Protestant minister caricatured by Hollywood, and it is equally helpful that we see that this minister has weaknesses, that are not moral in nature (contrast 'the Apostle'). This movie not only shows the challenges of being a single parent, but also the particular challenges this presents for someone trying to start a fledgling church in a small community. Yet it is clear that the daughter is trying hard to win her father's affection, and her father needs to do a better job of paying attention. Especially poignant is the attempt to explain to the daughter why 'Mom' left them, and the minister's struggle with guilt, feeling responsible for this tragedy. It is a typical blue color tale of true grit against considerable odds and it raises the question---- could our church embrace and support a minister like this?

'Robots', is a different sort of family tale, and here as well the family is a blue color one. Here we have two parents, and the father is a dishwasher--- I mean this literally (dishes wash inside the father!). The son in the family is a dreamer or inventor (kind of like his dad), supported with a lot of love and encouragement by his parents, as he sets out to make his way in the world. There is an antithesis to this family in the family of 'Rachet'who though he has highjacked a major corporation and is running it, is dominated by an enormously overbearing mother (who has quite literally strung up her husband from the rafters). The good son is contrasted with the bad son, and the normal family is both exalted and presented in a positive light. All of this may be missed since of course this movie has the ultimate scene stealer in it--- a robot with the voice of Robin Williams, who is hysterical as usual.

If we ask what these movies may be teaching our children, and the parents who view these movies with them, it is that family is a good thing, that hard work is a good thing, and that good can indeed triumph over obstacles, perhaps even over evil. But there is another theme in 'Robots' worth pondering--- a sentimental one, namely that the new and improved may not be the true and worth having. 'Upgrades' are the wave of the future, replacing ordinary parts in this movie. But the hero with his ingenuity finds a way to make old parts continue to work. This is only appropriate since this movie, like 'Because of Winn Dixie' finds a way to make old family values work as well--- and for this ordinary Christian viewers can only say--- 'Thank goodness, what a refreshing change of pace'.

By far the best of the recent 'family' movies is Roman Polanski's production of Charles Dicken's 'Oliver Twist'. Christian viewers will know the work of Dickens perhaps through his Christmas story, with such memorable characters as Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, or perhaps through his own Victorian retelling of the life of Christ, but the Dicken's works which made the most impact in their own day were his novels, and one of the best of these is Oliver Twist. Like Rembrandt, Dickens loves to sharply contrast darkness and light, and this romantic tale is no different, where we have an orphan who escapes from a child's labor mill and walks to London to make a new life where, like the man in the Good Samaritan, "he falls among thieves", and is taught the trade of artful 'dodging' not to mention thievery. The movie does an excellent job of painting the grim side of lower class life in Victorian England, and the stark contrast between the rich and the poor. It also does an excellent job of skewering hypocritical so-calld Christians who sell children down the river to the labor mills.

There are Oscar worthy performances in this movie by both Ben Kingsley (amazing and unrecognizable as Fagin) and Edward Hardwicke (Watson in Sherlocke Holmes) as the gentleman who comes to Oliver Twist's rescue. But the central character is of course Oliver Twist himself, played by an unknown who is nothing short of briliant. Dickens, true to the romanticism of his day, paints children as basically innocent, but subject to influence, whether bad or good, and in fact there are some profound and deeply redeeming features in Oliver Twist as the scene of forgiveness at the end of the movie makes so very clear.

This is an excellent movie to view with school age children if you want to have conversations with them about wealth and poverty and the Christian responsibility towards those less fortunate. It also shows so very clearly the fallenness of humankind, and man's inhumanity to his or her fellow human beings.

But even at the heart of darkness there are moments of grace and persons of goodwill, and this movie portrays these facts admirably. In my book this may be the movie of the year it is so compellingly filmed and acted, though unfortunately one has a Dickens of a time finding it, since it is in limited release. This is a movie worth seeing and savoring, and buying and watching again and again, not because it makes you feel good, but because it makes you wrestle with the call of Jesus when he said "imasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me...." The gist of the tale is the Twist in the tale, and he bears close watching indeed.

I was in the theater and the kids were everywhere. It is an unusual day when parents take their small children to see a movie about golf, but such is the case with the much praised "The Greatest Game Ever Played". The story is the improbable one of a very young American amateur Francis Ouimet who just happens to caddy on the course in Massachusetts where the 1913 U.S. Open is held. Even more improbably, he is asked by the club to play in the Open (that's why they call it an open, even amateurs, even rank amateurs can play--- as long as their play isn't rank). Still more improbably he finds himself in a fight to the finish to win the open against the greatest golfer of the age Harry Vardon. But however improbable this story may sound to you, and whatever your suspicions about Walt Disney, this actually is a true and amazing story, and it is well told and beautifully filmed.

The actors, though largely unknown, do a splendid job, the recreation of the period is excellent, right down to the whole British and American upper class prejudice issue, and there is plenty of comic relief from Eddie the diminutive caddy of Francis Ouimet. The story raises some interesting issues about the keeping of promises to one's parents (Ouimet played in the tourney though he had earlier promised his father to give up golf and get a real job that paid), and it also plows the well worn furrow of the parent child relationship and whether parents should always support their children's dreams, however unrealistic or apparently unrealizable. The message seems to be--- "don't let the world or your parents force you to give up your dreams". There is some poignancy in the story telling in regard to this theme. In a sense this movie raises the same kind of questions about dreams that the famous play by L. Hansberry "A Raisin in the Sun" raised. Is it really true that growing up or becoming mature= giving up one's childhood dreams? Is it true all of the time, or only some of time? This movie is so very different from those about driven parents who try to reach their own goals in life by pushing their children in various directions. Here Francis is the one with the passion for the game, and his father seems all too ready to dash his dreams and hopes, having himself been forced into the world's mold. As Christian persons and parents perhaps it will be well to remember the Biblical stories about dreamers who made good--- ranging from a Joseph to a Daniel to a Peter or a Paul. Perhaps dreams are the stuff of which real meaningful life can be made and molded, for as Acts 2 says the age of Pentecost is the age when young and old will dream dreams, inspired by God.


jean said...

Please, Ben, what is a blue color family? I know red state, blue state, colors white, black, red, and yellow, but blue?

Ben Witherington said...

oops! Should be blue collar.....



Ralph Hitchens said...

You liked the portrayal of the Protestant minister in "Winn Dixie" better than Robert Duvall's character in "The Apostle." I was wondering what your overall impression of "The Apostle" is, as I think it's one of the movie industry's better treatments of Christianity.


Ralph Hitchens

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Ralph:

Duvall is a brilliant actor, and I think he portrays a deeply passionate but flawed minister in a compelling fashion. Duvall's character is impetuous, Daniel's just tired and weak but not morally problematic. Perhaps you might enjoy seeing the new movie "The Gospel" and comparing that minister as well.

Doctor Clockwork said...

BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE was a strong portrayal of grace embodied. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It struck me as an honest, organic, and holistic vision of some of the subtleties of spiritual transformation that we so often overlook here in the "denominationalized" realm of Christendom, which is driven by an ecclesiastically dualistic separatism that is less concerned with theological embodiment than it is with ideological reputation.