- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2005

“Because of Winn-Dixie,” a movie version of Kate DiCamillo’s Newberry Medal novel of 2001, begins inauspiciously, emphasizing knockabout comedy of a type that doesn’t play to the bemused, low-key talents of director Wayne Wang. Time and again, he makes a botch of sequences meant to depict the cheerful havoc wrought by a runaway shaggy mutt, introduced on the loose in a Winn-Dixie grocery store in a small Florida town called Naomi.

The dog is named after the store by the lonesome, motherless little girl, 10-year-old Opal (Annasophia Robb), who adopts him, against the better judgment of her father, a low-rent Baptist minister who hopes to ingratiate himself with the sparse congregation at an abandoned convenience store. A happy-go-lucky specimen as a rule, Winn-Dixie disrupts a pet store, a Sunday service and the furnishings in the rented trailer home shared by Opal and her dad, played by Jeff Daniels, during subsequent romps. As a gratuitous encore, Winn-Dixie is encouraged to chew the trousers off a hapless town constable.

Despite the fact that the dog himself is something of a virtuoso at smiling, nuzzling and even simulating a catch in his canine throat, these slapstick specialty interludes are exceedingly clumsy and desperate. The film doesn’t find a secure footing until it swears off strenuous hokum and concentrates on wistful, sentimental elements.

There’s a conspicuous turnaround sequence. Opal and Preacher have been trying without success to calm Winn-Dixie during a thunderstorm. While waiting out his agitation, they share some confidences that Preacher has been avoiding: recollections of the woman who abandoned both child and husband several years earlier. Unable to remember her mother vividly, Opal begs for some memories from her dad, who finally relents after what we take to be a prolonged and painful silence on the topic.

As it turns out, the material is at its strongest when trying to console characters for lingering hurts, either self-inflicted or left by some form of abandonment. The town itself turns out to be a victim of abandonment. Its signature business, a lozenge company begun after the Civil War, dwindled away years earlier. A spinster librarian played by Eva-Marie Saint speculates that civic morale still hasn’t recovered from the loss.

While keeping up with Winn-Dixie over the course of her first summer in a new town, Opal bonds with a number of classmates who had seemed standoffish during the school term. She and the dog also serve as magnets for melancholy grown-ups, notably Dave Matthews as an ex-con with a plaintive guitar and Cicely Tyson as a near-blind crone who keeps a folk-art reminder of her youthful alcoholism: a huge tree strung with empty liquor bottles.

Miss Tyson’s character is even given a preposterous name, Gloria Dump, to accentuate the Southern gothic whimsy of it all. Nevertheless, the actress contrives to finesse this howling cliche of an adoptive granny.

By the time everyone is gathered around Gloria’s sitting room and harmonizing on the hymn “Lay My Burden Down,” “Because of Winn-Dixie” has earned some tolerance for its initial and recurrent blunders. Between dog, child and everyone influenced by their affectionate impulses, it’s difficult to remain a nonbeliever in emotional consolation and renewal.

TITLE: “Because of Winn-Dixie”

RATING: PG (Occasional comic vulgarity and elements of family conflict and sorrow)

CREDITS: Directed by Wayne Wang. Screenplay by Joan V. Singleton, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo. Cinematography by Karl Walter Linenlaub. Production design by Donald Graham Bart. Costume design by Hope Hanafin. Music by Rachel Portman

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

WEB SITE: www.becauseofwindixiethemovie.com


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