‘Because of Winn-Dixie’ movie: Lots of sentiment, little feeling
A ten-year-old blond girl with no friends. A kindly preacher, whose inner life has become a void following the departure of his wife seven years earlier. An elderly librarian who believes that books are reliable weapons against bears. A lonely blind woman who may or may not be a witch. A taciturn ex-con with a talent for playing the guitar to the animals in his pet store. These are the main characters found in a small Southern town circa nowadays – or anywhere in time, really – that form the human core of Because of Winn-Dixie. However, those two-legged small-town folks all play second fiddle to the real star of the film: Winn-Dixie himself, a big, slobbering mutt. (Image: AnnaSophia Robb, “Winn-Dixie” Because of Winn-Dixie.)
Winn-Dixie? What kind of dog name is that?
Well, it’s a homage to the chain of – now financially troubled – grocery stores found throughout the American South, for that was where the dog was first spotted by the friendless blond girl, Opal (AnnaSophia Robb). Winn-Dixie, by the way, is a dog that is not only big, dirty, and smart, but he’s also a special canine with the ability to smile (with the help of some digital tampering.)
Now, all of the above can be woven into a tale of Southern Gothic whimsy, or it can all be made into a gooey, undercooked Southern pecan pie. Unfortunately, despite several quirky bits, some good acting, and a couple of touching moments, Because of Winn-Dixie – based on Kate DiCamillo’s novel – comes across as a conventional rendering of an unusual and potentially illuminating story.
Wayne Wang disappoints
Director Wayne Wang takes most of the blame for the film’s failure, for he is clearly either unable – many of the camera set-ups are surprisingly amateurish – or unwilling to keep the film’s sweetness level in check. To the contrary, Wang, abetted by screenwriter Joan Singleton, seems to relish the sugar and syrup so much that he keeps adding every artificial sweetener he can think of. Worse yet, he milks a thoroughly artificial performance out of newcomer AnnaSophia Robb, a pretty, young girl who is made to act like Shirley Temple minus the curls and the tap-dancing. Coming from Wang, the man who managed to create pathos out of perilously saccharine material such as The Joy Luck Club (1993), that sort of emotionally manipulative approach is a major letdown.
Veteran Eva Marie Saint & Jeff Daniels are bright spots
Even so, not all is lost for Because of Winn-Dixie. Although she’s not given much to do, Academy Award-winning veteran Eva Marie Saint (On the Waterfront, North by Northwest) puts her more than half a century of film experience to good use. Saint, in fact, is a pleasure to watch as the bear-fighting librarian who befriends Opal. For his part, Jeff Daniels displays honesty and the appropriate emotional distance as Opal’s unresponsive father, a man who preaches love and kindness but who is unable to get in touch with his own feelings.
In addition, Because of Winn-Dixie even offers one genuinely touching sequence in which the local pet store’s birds and mammals walk freely while listening to some melodious guitar-playing by pop singer Dave Matthews, capably cast as the mysterious pet store manager. Oh, and there’s also that cute, unwashed dog with the Colgate smile.
But a whimsical To Kill a Mockingbird this ain’t.
Because of Winn-Dixie (2005). Dir.: Wayne Wang. Scr.: Joan Singleton; from Kate DiCamillo’s novel. Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Dave Matthews, Eva Marie Saint, Nick Price, Elle Fanning, Luke Benward, Courtney Jines.
AnnaSophia Robb, “Winn-Dixie” Because of Winn-Dixie movie image: 20th Century Fox.