A faithful adaptation of the best-selling novel by Kate DiCamillo, "Because of Winn-Dixie" is a quality family film, pure of heart and mostly avoiding the saccharine, that doesn't quite fulfill the capabilities of its story. Director Wayne Wang (2002's "Maid in Manhattan
") has a talent in solidly portraying the dusty, small town setting and juggling a wide array of supporting characters that each have an impact on 10-year-old protagonist Opal (AnnaSophia Robb). Disappointingly, he and screenwriter Joan Singleton drops the ball by the third act, introducing a conflict that screams of artificiality and wrapping things up in a too-neat package that meshes uncertainly with the low-key hand of its former 90 minutes.
Opal is a lonely young girl who, having recently moved to the nowhere Florida town of Naomi with her preacher father (Jeff Daniels), is without any friends and feels out of place. Deeply missing a mother she can hardly remembershe up and left them when Opal was only threea twist of fate comes Opal's way one lazy summer day when she meets a stray dog. Naming the dog Winn-Dixie after the supermarket she found him in, Opal is quick to persuade her father to let her keep him. Gradually, and with the guidance of her loyal, unusually wise new pet, Opal finds herself befriending a bevy of Naomi residents who, she finds, are just as lonely but as capable of loving as she.
In the hands of acclaimed filmmaker Wayne Wang, "Because of Winn-Dixie" tries to avoid pandering to the bathroom humor and juvenile gags that befall most other modern family features. There still are a few unnecessary moments of cliched physical comedy that smell of being forced in there by the studio for commercial reasons, the majority involving a bumbling policeman (Harland Williams), but they come few and far between. Refreshingly, none of the animals talk via CGI effects, either during the actual story (2004's "Racing Stripes
" and 2003's "Good Boy!
") or in dream sequences (2002's "Snow Dogs
" and 2003's "Kangaroo Jack
"). Furthermore, there are no flashy action scenes nor any fantasy elements, instead relying on the strength of its characters and gentle slice-of-life narrative to involve the viewer. For this reason, "Because of Winn-Dixie" may face an uphill battle for financial success, a depressing but telling truth about what catches the eyes of today's youth. Once in front of the film, however, audiences of all ages will likely be swept away and appreciative of the unusual intelligence with which they are treated.
The human relationships that Opal forms in "Because of Winn-Dixie," and the scenes involved in building these friendships, are the film's greatest attribute. From Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), the elderly librarian whose love of books has left her life empty of real human contact, to blind backwoods hermit Gloria (Cicely Tyson), a kind and misunderstood woman who has hung bottles from trees in her yard as a way of counting and reminding herself of the mistakes she has made in her past, to Otis (Dave Matthews), a recently released felon and talented musician managing the town's pet shop, the picture is overflowing with superbly realized characters. These are not cookie-cutter types, but three-dimensional figures, beautifully played by Eva Marie Saint (Oscar winner for 1954's "On the Waterfront"), Cicely Tyson (1991's "Fried Green Tomatoes"), and real-life musician Dave Matthews, whose poignant, flawed lives bless the film with a surprising gravitas
Every family movie requires an absentee parentit would seem to be a rule of the genrebut director Wayne Wang injects this subplot with an accuracy rarely seen. In most films, a missing mother or father is but a plot convention. Here, Opal is seen actually dealing in realistic ways to her loss, evident all the more in her rocky, if unconditionally loving, bond with her preacher father. There is a touching sequence in which he finally tells his daughter ten things about her mother, one for each year of her life so far, which Opal later uses to create a devastating half-accurate, half-imagined memory of what she might have been like.
In a heavy-duty role that has her front and center of every scene, newcomer AnnaSophia Robb is a fresh and promising child performer. With the occasional stilted line delivery and a few too many mugging bats of her eyelashes as she speaks, Robb admittedly has a long way to go in perfecting her craftthen again, it's easy to be spoiled when the remarkable Dakota Fanning is also out there in Hollywood. Still, she invigorates Opal with a vulnerable resourcefulness that is irresistible and believably handles quite a few dramatic moments with assurance. As her father, whom she calls Preacher, Jeff Daniels (2002's "The Hours
") is reliably unfailing. Rounding out the cast as the other children in the town Opal gets to know are Courtney Jines (2003's "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
"), as the no-nonsense Amanda; Nick Price and Luke Benward (2002's "We Were Soldiers
"), as the trouble-making Dewberry brothers; and Elle Fanning (2004's "The Door in the Floor
"), Dakota's little sister, as knuckle-sucking, dog-adoring Sweetie Pie Thomas.
For a long time, "Because of Winn-Dixie" hardly takes a wrong step, and then it does. The film itself and the smooth, nicely evolving treatment of its characters do not reach their full potential by the time the unwarranted false crisis and abrupt happy ending arrive. The biggest victim of all, it ironically turns out, is the core friendship between Opal and Winn-Dixie, which isn't given nearly enough screen time or affecting moments to build the emotional weight director Wayne Wang is clearly going for. This downfall, caused by a convoluted plot device and a rushed journey to the end credits, stunts the impact of the film experience as a whole and concludes things on a curiously unsatisfying note. As a motion picture detailing the bond between a little girl and her dog, the film lacks the details of the best entries in the animal-child genre. However, as a motion picture about a young girl coming to terms with the knowledge that with joy, life is also fraught with unavoidable pain, "Because of Winn-Dixie" is wise and kind of beautiful in its earnest simplicity. In a perfect world, the sum of its parts could have added up to much more than it does. Then again, let's be thankful for small victories. It could have been "Are We There Yet?