Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) / Family-Comedy
MPAA Rated: PG for brief language
Running Time: 105 min.
Cast: Annasophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Dave Matthews, Eva Marie Saint, Courtney Jines, Elle Fanning, Harland Williams, Nick Price, Luke Benward
Director: Wayne Wang
Screenplay: Joan Singleton (adapted from the novel by Kate DiCamillo)
Review published February 26, 2005
The formula isn't hard to figure out: cute dog + cute kid = cute movie.
It's based on the young readers book of the same name by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie may be uneven, but it does have enough charm to still win you over, if you let it. It's very sweet, often flirting with being cloying, and yet, it manages to do what it sets out to do -- make you smile.
Annasophia Robb stars as Opal, a 10-year-old preacher's daughter, newly relocated with her father in a small town in Florida. Being the new kid, she has no friends, and with a mother that abandoned her at a young age, it is a lonely and sad existence. Then a stray dog enters her life, a Picardy Shepherd which she adopts as her own, and soon she has not only a best friend, but they share adventures that allows her to make many more.
Excellent casting helps immensely, as everyone fits their parts well, including a terrific job by newcomer Annasophia Robb in carrying the movie as the star. The supporting cast is full of recognizable faces, including Jeff Daniels (Imaginary Heroes, The Hours) as the father and preacher, Cicely Tyson (Fried Green Tomatoes, Hoodlum) as a nearly blind but very wise old woman, Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest, On the Waterfront) as a quiet librarian, and even singer Dave Matthews (Where the Red Fern Grows) gets to play a few songs in his role as an employee of the local pet store. Like many of today's family films, especially those that take place in rural towns, the adults tend to be on the eccentric side, and most of the situations are a mix of whimsical humor and down-home sensibility.
If there is a downside to the film, it comes from the occasional moments of physical humor and mild sight gags, which seem out of place in a story that treads the line between light comedy and light drama. Many of these moments come from giving animals almost human traits, as if they understand just what is going on. Harland Williams (Lucky 13), who plays an incompetent police officer, is the catalyst for the worst of these moments, with animals that sense he is a jackass, and assault him at every turn. I'm not sure how you can get a wedgie pulling down someone's underwear, but it gets an easy laugh from the kids, I guess. I could have done without the belching dog scene as well, since it takes a heartwarming story and makes it feel cheap.
All of the elements were in place for a terrific film, but it only offers modest amusement due to director Wayne Wang's inability to understand how to create a film where magical things can happen. Whenever the story veers into the realm of fantasy, the momentum suffers. A director who understood small-town folk, with all of the quaint idiosyncrasies they imbue, would have probably fared better.
Because of Winn-Dixie is a good family movie marred by some bad moments, so I can only offer a modest recommendation for those who won't mind the stupid humor for the sake of the more emotional elements. Strictly for viewers who like cute dog/cute kid movies, but entertaining in that limited vein.
©2005 Vince Leo