Directed by: Wayne Wang
Starring: Jeff Daniels, AnnaSophia Robb, Cicely Tyson, Eva Marie Saint, Dave Matthews
Back in the late '50s and early '60s, when I was subjected to movies aimed at my age group that were supposed to somehow be "good" for me, this film would have been high on the list of M.S.U.D. -- Movies Seen Under Duress.
In all honesty, however, I would have vastly preferred this movie to the earlier model. I'm thinking of films like Ol' Yeller and Pollyanna, both of which Because of Winn-Dixie rather resembles. It's not that this is an especially better movie than either of those "children's classics," but it certainly covers much of the same ground without the sort of "character strengthening" grimness those movies considered necessary.
In other words, this movie's like Ol' Yeller without rabies, or perhaps a paralysis-free Pollyanna. Is that an advancement? Perhaps not, but I don't mind the move away from the "nasty medicine" school of kiddie movies. And I think we can all guess just how many hands would be raised if we were to honestly pitch Ol' Yeller to a roomful of kids by asking, "Now, who'd like to see a movie about a little boy who has to shoot his dog?" -- or, similarly, if we touted Pollyanna as "the story of a girl who charms an entire town and then breaks her back."
Sure, those films were meant to be Life Lessons -- a sort of overture to prepare the prepubescent set for the opera of adolescent angst and adult disappointment to come. But when you're 4 or 5 years old, those lessons seem downright sadistic, or at least they would if you knew what sadistic meant.
This isn't to say that Because of Winn-Dixie is lacking in the Life Lesson department. The movie touches on alcoholism, a parent abandoning a child, the loss of a young sibling, the possible loss of a pet and a variety of smaller problems. But it does so without undue melodrama and the kind of plot mechanics that aim solely for the grimmest of conclusions.
What's more, the movie's many lessons -- on the imperfections (and even betrayals) of adults, on judging people by what we know of them (rather than what we've merely heard), and on the wisdom of loving things (or persons) while we have them, without trying to hold onto them if they don't want to be held -- are well-taken and presented without condescension.
The story has a simple charm: India Opal Buloni (AnnaSophia Robb) rescues a dog that's running riot in a Winn-Dixie grocery store by claiming ownership of the overzealous canine, after which she dubs it Winn-Dixie. She forges a friendship with the dog and enlists the critter in her efforts to cheer up the undeniably cheerless little town of Naomi, Fla., where her preacher father (Jeff Daniels) has been hired as a minister.
There are quite a few genuinely charming, and even moving, touches throughout the film. Opal's relationship with a reclusive and nearly blind recovering alcoholic, Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), is particularly fine, especially the bit about Gloria's bottle tree. Similarly, the almost magical device of lonely librarian Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint) and her candy -- the Littmus Lozenge, which tastes sweet yet evokes a sense of personal loss -- verges on the brilliant.
In addition, most of the secondary characters are quite good. Dave Matthews (yes, of Dave Matthews Band fame) plays the none-too-bright Otis, who's taking care of his cousin's pet shop while she's away (or so he claims). He manages to be sweet and charming without toppling over into the realm of romanticizing the mentally-challenged. The town's other children seem unusually real, even if the movie's theme of finding the good beneath their inhospitable exteriors is a device that's older than the hills.
Director Wayne Wang at first seems a strange choice for this material. While watching this firmly PG-rated exercise, it's hard not to think of the infamous scene in a movie of his from a couple years ago, The Center of the World, where a woman does something, shall we say, indelicate with a lollipop. However, Wang proves himself very much in tune with the material once it hits its stride, and he crafts at least one absolutely beautiful scene (a party in Gloria's garden) in the process.
There is, unfortunately, another side to the film that keeps it from becoming the instant classic that it clearly aims to be. The first 30 to 40 minutes are strangely awkward and amateurish -- more along the lines of what you'd expect from an independent four-waller like The Adventures of Ociee Nash than a major production from 20th Century Fox. Part of this stems from the casting of AnnaSophia Robb. She has a natural charm and is an attractive child, but her acting is a little too forced and precious to carry the lead throughout the film.
Part of the problem is the material, which is simply too thin for 106 minutes of screen time, something that becomes abundantly obvious with the intrusive and utterly pointless addition of an obnoxiously "comic" policeman.
But the biggest problem lies with the fact that Wang, for all his abilities elsewhere, can neither get a grip on the comedic side of the film nor adequately judge comic performances. The entire pivotal scene of the dog in the Winn-Dixie is a shambles. It's at once too broad and too cute, and it has no grace. And the performance of John McConnell as the store manager is the sort you'd find in bad little theater productions (where it would get overlooked, because the audience knows this is really just the guy who owns the hardware store downtown and not a real actor).
All of these drawbacks -- combined with the desire to include every cute dog joke known to man -- make for some pretty tough sledding for the first third of the movie. That's too bad, because the last two-thirds suggest the better film this might have been. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief, mild language.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke