Because of Winn-Dixie

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/24/05 16:26:35

"A long-sigh, good-cry, feel-good heartwarmer. Loved every minute."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Because of Winn-Dixie” is a sweet movie based on a sweet book about a sweet girl and her sweet dog, who do sweet things in a sweet small town. It’s ten pounds of cute, all bursting at the seams and eager to raise a smile. And so my cynical side took a two hour vacation, and my heart got all the warmer.

The film falls into the category of Cute Dog Movie, and as the thing opens, there’s not much to separate it from the dozens of other Cute Dog Movies out there. The acting’s broad, there’s some cheap slapstick for the kiddies, everything’s so sugary sweet. But that’s how the movie sneaks up on you; caught off guard by the simplicity and familiarity of the first half, the second half packs an extra punch by digging deeper than what we expected.

Adapted from the delightful children’s novel by Kate DiCamillo, “Winn-Dixie” tells the tale of ten-year-old tomboy Opal (Annasophia Robb), who has moved to the sleepy, rundown town of Naomi, Florida, when her father (Jeff Daniels) gets a job preaching at the local Baptist church (which also happens to serve as the town’s convenience store). Lost and lonely with out her old pals - and haunted by the memory of a mother who ran off years earlier - Opal finally finds a friend in a stray mutt she names Winn-Dixie, after the store where she finds him.

Or where he finds her, as it were. There’s a lot of that ol’ special-animal-does-just-the-right-thing magic that takes place here, and Opal’s narration is eager to inform us that everything good that happens here is… well, just look at the title.

I originally felt as though this movie would be better suited as a period piece, a throwback number similar to “My Dog Skip.” Seeing such quaint, old fashioned plot devices roll out with modern day accoutrements seemed like a mistake, until it hit me that this was exactly the point. The town of Naomi and all who reside here would not fit in, say, the 1950s, a time when everything was new and shiny. No, the characters here require a run-down feel; the people, like the town itself, are broken versions of their past selves.

That’s the theme in “Winn-Dixie:” recovering from past sorrows by finally coming together as a community. Consider the characters Opal meets along her journeys. There’s Otis (Dave Matthews, in a touching performance far more impressive than I ever would have expected), a shy ex-con who works at the local pet shop. Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), town librarian, spinster, and spinner of great tales. Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), a blind hermit who forces herself to remember the sins of her past. Even the kids in the town have their share of pain and loneliness.

But above all, there’s Opal’s dad - the Preacher, she calls him - who can’t forgive himself for what he sees as his own failures, and who can’t bring himself to tell Opal about why her mother left when she did.

The film’s most magical, most moving moment comes when Miss Franny brings out an old stock of candy, a special kind her family used to make, a kind in which the special ingredient is sorrow. Opal shares the candy with all around her, and all of them become overwhelmed by the sadness that comes with it. It’s such an effective sequence, with the cast able to bring out such feelings of internal pain with so little.

(Runner-up for the most moving moment: Matthews, explaining how he landed in jail long ago, sings out a heartwrenching plea: “I’m not a bad man, I’m just not a lucky man.” It’s a triple dose of Miss Franny’s candy, a slam of sorrow - and from a musician with little acting experience. Who knew?)

It’s true that “Winn-Dixie” is simplistic in its storytelling, but that’s all part of its charm. Even the more kid-centric moments (such as a running gag involving Harlan Williams as a bumbling sheriff) come off winningly, their innocence only propelling us ahead. Such moments, with their easy, familiar tone, set us up, get us comfortable with these characters, which only makes the ups and downs of the final act all the more compelling. There’s a great sense of joy to be found in seeing these lost souls come together with the help of a little girl and her dog, and there’s a great sense of grief to be found when the regrets of the past explode all at once. “Winn-Dixie,” directed by Wayne Wang (“The Joy Luck Club”) with just the right pinch of purity and naiveté, is a delightfully moving experience. It’s more than a good kids’ movie; it’s a good movie for everyone. Even cynics.

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