Based on the Newbery-Award-winning children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie is so sweetly earnest and well-intentioned that even when it hits the occasional sour note, it’s hard not to be won over by its sentiment, even if it is a damn dog movie. In an era of over-the-top Hollywood bastardizations of children’s books, it’s refreshing to finally find a movie brave enough to avoid bestializing its characters (The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas), turning a pleasantly sweet story into an over-the-top CGI special-effects crapaganza (Polar Express), or pulling talking animals out of beer commercials just long enough to suggest to your children that betting on the horses is an acceptable way of spending their allowances (Racing Stripes).
Because of Winn-Dixie begins in a supermarket, where so-cute-it-hurts Opal Buloni (newcomer and likely future drug-addled, bulimic former child-actress AnnaSophia Robb) is doing some shopping when a dog barges in and does all those doggy cliched things you’d expect from a movie like this, such as knocking over vegetable stands, jumping on people, and eliciting some really bad overacting from the Louisianan locals brought in as extras. Just before the dog is hauled off to the pound and euthanized, Opal steps in and claims it as her own, calling it Winn Dixie, after the grocery store in which it was discovered. For those of you who have never been to the South, Winn Dixie is an actual grocery store, which for 75 years has “stood for real quality and value,” and is, undoubtedly, a constant reminder to racist Southerners that the Confederacy lost the Civil War.
The movie takes place in a central Florida town, Naomi, a place so destitute that the church in which Opal’s father (Jeff Daniels) preaches also doubles as a convenience store, the Pick-It-Quick. Opal, whose mother left the family when she was three, lives with her father in a trailer park ran by the curmudgeonly and almost slimy Mr. Alfred (B.J. Hopper), whom I can attest (having substantial childhood experience with Southern trailer parks myself) is an extremely true-to-life character.
Thanks largely to the extroverted Winn Dixie, Opal befriends the town’s saddest residents, which include the lonely town librarian (Eva Marie Saint), who once scared away a bear with a copy of War and Peace; the unfortunately named Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), a misunderstood blind woman who hangs liquor bottles from a tree to remind her of the mistakes she’s made in her life; and Otis, a guitar-playing pet-store owner played by Dave Mathews. (Mathews, who was stolen away from the cool kids a decade ago by the nation’s frat houses and turned into this generation’s pot-smoking, beer-swilling icon, turns in a sweet performance as the Magic Man, whose heavy-hearted voice soothes the animals in his pet store and, surprisingly, the audience, too.) Like everyone else in this small, sad sack Florida town, even the dog is a wounded soul, howling when it’s lonely and manic to the point of destruction during thunderstorms.
Due to the talent of director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Maid in Manhattan), Because of Winn-Dixie manages to avoid the manufactured schmaltz that family films generally like to bludgeon us with. The cast expresses emotions sparely, pulling back at just the right moments, successfully toeing the line between sentimentality and sappiness by mixing cutesiness with just enough melancholy.
To be sure, the movie has a few flaws; for one, its preciousness sometimes wears out its welcome — the pet-store barnyard is a bit too much; and the film’s attempt to create some comic relief with the Roscoe P. Coltrane police officer (Harlan Williams) can get a little grating (though, I’ve no doubt the kids will love him).
Winn-Dixie possesses all the adorable elements one might want in a canine movie, but it’s also smart enough to portray kids burdened by real problems — in this case, Opal longs for her estranged mother — instead of sitcom-y humiliations or evil villains set to blow up mankind. Because of Winn-Dixie manages to speak to children and adults alike without talking down to them, eliciting real emotion without overwrought manipulation; it may bring you to the brink of tears, but it will never push you over (there is nothing more pathetic than watching a movie critic weep). The narrative is real and involving; and, thankfully, is more about a little girl coming to terms with her own pain — and the rest of the town filling their own voids ― than it is about a dog that looks like it’s smiling.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba and managing partner of its parent company, which prefers to remain anonymous for reasons pertaining to public relations. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
Because of Winn-Dixie / Dustin Rowles
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()