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Film review

Special on the sugar aisle

Villainy, angst and plot are scarce in the film Because of Winn-Dixie; it may be too sweet for some palates, but a pleasant change of taste for others.

By STEVE PERSALL
Published February 17, 2005


photo
[Photo: Twentieth Century Fox]
Winn-Dixie, a lovable Picardy shepherd, left, and Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), a lonely 10-year-old girl living in rural Florida, join forces in the sweet-natured film Because of Winn-Dixie.

  A kid's best friend
If you loved the book about a girl and her dog, you'll love the faithful movie adaption of Because of Winn-Dixie.

Dogged by plummeting stock value, Winn-Dixie grocery stores have the most ill-timed product placement ever in a movie. Yet, because of a dog named Winn-Dixie, families have an extraordinarily clean movie to enjoy together.

Wayne Wang's Because of Winn-Dixie is inoffensive, almost to a fault. The setting is present day, although the tone is something from long ago. Practically everyone in the movie is a saint in training, and their worst crisis is getting the egg salad sandwiches soggy during a lawn party. Even when that adorable dog gets lost, there's barely enough time for sniffles before he turns up again. The movie bends over backward to keep everything fantastically feel-good, like some new wave of science fiction.

Wang keeps it simple and, some will say, stupid. Not me. Because of Winn-Dixie and the similarly sweet Uncle Nino are at least pleasant palate cleansers after so many cynical, crude-natured films selling themselves as family entertainment. Christmas with the Kranks and Are We There Yet? seem like Pulp Fiction by comparison.

The hero of Kate DiCamillo's novel is 10-year-old Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), the only child of a small-town preacher (Jeff Daniels) whose wife deserted them years ago. We'll get the details, but not until Wang and screenwriter Joan Singleton have us safely nestled in a comfort zone. Opal is lonely during her first summer in fictional Naomi, Fla. (backroads Louisiana serves as a Sunshine State double). Then she makes friends with a scruffy Picardy shepherd running amok in a Winn-Dixie store, hence his name.

From there, Opal and her pet meet various shades of colorful Southerners: a mild-mannered drifter (rock musician Dave Matthews), a blind black woman (Cicely Tyson) who's rumored to be a witch, a goofy police officer (Harland Williams) and a kindly librarian (Eva Marie Saint). There's no plot to speak of, just a series of disconnected events that enable Opal to invite everyone to a climactic party where they'll bond over punch, pickles and gospel songs.

If that sounds like your kind of movie, Because of Winn-Dixie is quaintly capable of satisfying. Anyone cringing at the description is advised to stay away. Personally, I enjoyed this dose of competent hokum. The scenes Wang stages that are simply dumb - Winn-Dixie making people fall down, or Williams' mugging - are tolerable when you can expect something genuinely affecting to follow. Wang earns that kind of confidence.

Usually, it's the very capable Daniels and Tyson making the difference. Both overplay their emotions, but it feels right in these circumstances. Each gets at least one monologue to explain their miseries, and a closeup complete with heart-tugging music to convey how much Opal's listening means to them. Matthews makes his movie debut fairly painless, looking more comfortable picking a guitar and singing than emoting.

Waiting for something, probably tragic, to happen in Naomi can be frustrating. But there's something tranquilizing about a town where everyone goes to church and the candy factory closed because its product tasted too sorrowful. Viewers will be stumped to recall when any movie was so relentlessly nice - unless they've seen Uncle Nino. Having two such sweet-natured movies available in theaters at once is a minor miracle. Yet, making a double feature of them might be as toxic as chocolate to Winn-Dixie: the dog, not the grocery chain.

Because of Winn-Dixie

Grade: B-

Director: Wayne Wang

Cast: AnnaSophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Dave Matthews, Eva Marie Saint, Harland Williams, Elle Fanning

Screenplay: Joan Singleton, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo

Rating: PG; mature themes, briefly crude language

Running time: 100 min.

[Last modified February 16, 2005, 08:33:04]


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