Because of Winn-Dixie

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Because of Winn-Dixie
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews Laura Clifford 
10-year old India Opal (Annasophia Robb) is the new kid in the town of Naomi. Florida where her Baptist minister father, Preacher (Jeff Daniels), has relocated, yet again, after his wife abandoned them when Opal was three.  The youngster is alone and lonely, without friends, until she runs an errand to the local super market for her dad and rescues a stray dog that she claims and names after the store chain in Because of Winn Dixie.”

We meet precocious Opal in the middle of an important ballgame where she may well be pitching the game-winning strike or, maybe, a home run. The camera pulls back and we see that little India Opal is alone and playing by herself. Ostracized at school, even by the much maligned Dewberry brothers, Dunlap (Nick Price) and Stevie (Luke Benward), Opal must suffer the daily grind as the new kid at school. Her dad sends her to the local Winn Dixie Super market to pick up supplies and she witnesses a stray dog running amuck through the store’s aisles, leaving disaster and chaos in its wake. When the manager demands the pound be called, Opal claims ownership the gangly, smiling mutt that she names, on the spur of the moment, Winn Dixie.

Opals hands are full as she must introduce the exuberant, accident-prone dog to her constantly distracted minister dad who preaches to his new flock in the combo chapel/convenience store. Preacher is a very troubled man who is always questioning and blaming himself for why his wife, and Opal’s mother, left so abruptly seven years before. Dad immediately demands that the newly dubbed Winn Dixie be sent to the pound but Opal gets a reprieve when he agrees to begin a lost dog poster campaign (which Opal thwarts at every chance she gets) to find the dog a new home.

Once Opal insinuates the likable, chaos-prone mutt into their household the duo begin to delve into the nooks and crannies of Naomi and discover some of its interesting denizens. She sees a drifter whom she meets again when she visits Gertrude’s Pet Store for dog food for her newfound canine friend. Opal cajoles a job from Otis (Dave Matthews) after the shop’s resident cockatoo, Gertrude, accepts the exuberant Winn Dixie.

With this new anchor of friendship and a job, Opal drops by the local library and meets Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), the town librarian who fascinates the 10-year old with the story of how she once confronted a bear. Opal is later challenged by the Dewberry boys to enter the mysterious realm of the town’s resident witch,” who turns out to be a kindly, near-blind woman named Gloria (Cicely Tyson). The arrival of Winn Dixie into Opal’s life proves to be just the thing a lonely little girl needs.

This is a case of where the sum of the parts is far less than the whole. Taken apart to its component pieces there is real craftsmanship apparent from helmer Wayne Wang. For instance, when Opal and nearly-blind Gloria throw a party to bring the quirky townsfolk of Naomi together, the construct of the decorations has a homey touch with paper bag lanterns and egg salad sandwiches. When the big party starts we’re presented with a set so lavishly opulent and unbelievably over the top that it is jarringly inappropriate – kind of like movies with elementary school plays that look like Busby Berkeley productions.

Annasophia Robb, as India Opal, looks like she was cast because of her resemblance to Tatum O’Neil in Paper Moon.” She’s a cute, precocious youngster but similarity to the youngest Oscar winner is too pointed to be coincidence. The rest of the cast of veteran performers go through the motions but none are given more than two dimensional characters to play. This is too bad considering the caliber of talent like Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint.

Production credits are first rate but cannot undue the overly manufactured nature of the story. There are too many inane scenes where Winn Dixie wreaks havoc and causes mass destruction that make one question the charm of canine Winn Dixie. The film seems geared, overall, to older kids but these scenes seem to be played for much younger kids. Things like this keep Because of Winn Dixie” from reaching any kind of balance. Helmer Wang seems like little more than a hired gun.

The artificial, manufactured feel of “Because of Winn Dixie” kept me at arm’s length and I never embraced the story or characters as real. To the filmmakers credit, they avoided overdoing the “smiling dog” concept that is so prevalent in the movie’s trailers, which would have been far too cute for words in the film. I give it a C.

India Opal Buloni (Annasophia Robb, the upcoming "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") faces a depressing summer in Naomi, Florida, the new town her dad has moved them to. Preacher is (Jeff Daniels, "Imaginary Heroes," "Dumb & Dumber") depressed and distant since his wife, Opal's mom, left them and won't talk about her.  None of the kids Opal meets at the Pick 'n Quick, home of the Open Arms Baptist Church, seem like good friend potential.  Things are about to change, though, not only for Opal but for all the sad and disconnected denizens of Naomi, all "Because of Winn-Dixie."

Director Wayne Wang ("Maid in Manhattan," "Eat a Bowl of Tea"), working with Joan Singleton's adaptation of Kate DiCamillo's popular children's novel, hit the jackpot choosing untrained and rare Picardy shepherds for his titular canine.  But while Wang hits some high notes with a few scattered flights of fancy, he mostly bungles this girl and her dog tale with painfully awkward direction and mind-numbing treacle.

As Opal tells us in voice over, everything changed the day her dad sent her for macaroni and cheese, white rice and two tomatoes.  An over-orchestrated upset at the local Winn Dixie is caused by a stray which Opal steps up and claims as her own.  The big, friendly mutt (fortunately the computer enhanced smiles of the trailer appear naturally in the film) becomes Opal's gateway to the lives and history of Naomi.  There's Otis (Dave Matthews of the Dave Matthews Band), the guy with a past who tends to his cousin Gertrud's pet store by soothing the savage breasts of its piglets, ducks and cockatiel with his songs. Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint, "On the Waterfront") mistakes Winn-Dixie for the bear who once entered her library and made off with "War and Peace."  The dog bounds into the overgrown land of Naomi's 'witch,' Gloria (Cicely Tyson, "Fried Green Tomatoes'), who turns out to be a legally blind woman making peace with a bad past.  Even dour Amanda (Courtney Jine, "Spy Kids 3: Game Over"), knuckle-sucking Sweetie Pie (Elle Fanning, "The Door in the Floor") and the yucky Dewberry boys (Nick Price and Luke Benward) prove more interesting once Winn-Dixie breaks the ice.  Most important of all, the dog opens up communications between Opal and the Preacher.

Wang uses a home-movie style to accompany some of the film's more fantastical elements, such as a realization of Miss Franny's bear recollection or Opal imagining her mother growing a VW from a tire, which works as a bridge between Opal's memories of happier times with mom and the town of Naomi's more colorful past.  The shepherds get a workout running around the grocery store, catching a rat in church and displaying Winn-Dixie's 'pathological fear of thunderstorms,' although his supposed cause of a near riot in Getrud's pet store with a mere 'woof' is blatantly artificial.  (This scene should have been excised from the film entirely, capped as it is by Fanning's weird and mistimed pronouncement that Otis is a 'magic man.')  There's a lovely scene where Miss Franny recounts the story of her great-grandfather and his famous 'Litmus Lozenges,' candies produced in Naomi with the secret ingredient of sadness, as the Dewberry boys struggle to hear, unseen beneath the porch.  But for each bit that works, there are others that are atrocious.  A town policeman (Harland Williams, "Sorority Boys," "Dumb & Dumber") is a ridiculous character with dreadful dialogue and no raison d'etre.  A climatic party, which Opal convinces Gloria to host, begins with the duo charmingly making lanterns out of paper bags, then evolves into a set decorated with thousands of electric lights, hundreds of candles and about a ton of strewn rose petals.  Opal's love of and talent for baseball is presented early on, then dropped, even when she comes across a neighborhood game in progress.  The film's tone seesaws between 'Golly Gee' squeaky clean and characters dealing with alcoholism, jail terms and abandonment.

Newcomer Annasophia Robb is a charming newcomer and her natural relationship with the dogs portraying Winn-Dixie is quite an achievement for the girl and the trainer.  Daniels is also convincing as a man who loves his daughter but withdraws behind his pain.  Support is passable, with the exception of the overacting of Williams and John McConnell ("Mr. 3000") as the Winn Dixie manager.  Dave Matthews seems to grow less confident as the film progresses, although he does get a laugh with his obvious 'I brought pickles' admission at Opal's party.

'Life was like a Litmus Lozenge' Opal tells us, unaware that the author of her line was cribbing from "Forrest Gump."  For all the charms of the dog at its center, the film version of "Because of Winn-Dixie" is no "My Dog Skip."

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