Because of Winn-Dixie, the latest effort from director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Smoke), is about a special dog who makes a difference in a child's life. It's about small towns and the secrets they hide. It's about 110 minutes of well-meaning, benign unoriginality.
Based on Kate DiCamillo's novel, the movie takes place in sleepy Naomi, FL, population 2,524. Ten-year-old Opal (the precocious AnnaSophia Robb) has moved here with her dad (Jeff Daniels), the town's new preacher. While her father adjusts to a set of challenges -- including preaching in a half-empty convenience store -- Opal has her own: She has no friends and no mother to help cope with her loneliness. Opal's rapport with her father is shaky at best, and it represents the movie's most effective plotline.
Opal's life improves during a trip to the Winn-Dixie supermarket. As she roams the aisles, a dog bolts into the store. When the staff finally catches the mangy mutt, Opal, seeing an opportunity, declares ownership. Though nearly everyone who matters in her life is against the dog, which Opal names Winn-Dixie, she keeps him for the summer.
That summer might be special for Opal -- she meets the kindly old librarian (Eva Marie Saint) and an old woman her playmates deem a witch (Cicely Tyson, borrowing Macy Gray's hair) -- but she lives through a rehash of classic Southern literature and the countless movies spawned by those books. Each friend Opal makes harbors a secret, a long overused theme of Southern literature. Throw in the "dog who changed my life" angle, and Because of Winn-Dixie is My Dog Skip meets To Kill a Mockingbird (young girl's journey of self-discovery), minus their charisma and originality.
Wang apparently thinks nobody has ever seen a movie set in a small Southern town, so he bombards us with shots of darkened country roads, quaint stores, old cars, open fields, and elm trees. Because of Winn-Dixie plays like a highlight reel of country fried clichés, stressing the plot's unoriginality, and showing how desperately Wang wants to conjure a small-town atmosphere. I could see taking advantage of all the scenery if the movie took place in 1955, but it is set in the present day. You mean to tell me there isn't a McDonald's anywhere?
The uneasiness goes beyond atmosphere, as Wang and screenwriter Joan Singleton can't decide on what to offer: a growin'-up drama or a cuddly family comedy featuring a wonderful dog, and their indecision results in a jarring, persistent identity crisis. The amount of dialogue is also a hurdle. Every character has a story to tell, and those tales of sorrow and secrets hobble the movie. Saint's librarian tells one to Opal about the town's old candy factory that besides feeling out of place is drenched with symbolic hogwash that the average 10-year-old could never understand.
Because of Winn-Dixie's popularity -- as of this review's posting it was number 3 at the box office -- confuses me. It's too talky for kids to appreciate, and the material is so overused that most adults will be bored. The lesson: we should never underestimate the power of cute animals, or familiarity.
The DVD includes some commentary from Rabb, a feature-length track from Daniels and producer Trevor Albert, plus a gag reel and a making-of featurette.