[Screen It]

(2005) (Annasophia Robb, Jeff Daniels) (PG)

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Drama: Through the assistance of the stray dog that she's adopted, a 10-year-girl befriends the residents of a small town and helps them and herself work through their various issues.
Ten-year-old India Opal Buloni (ANNASOPHIA ROBB) is in dire need of a friend. She's just moved to the small town of Naomi, Florida with her father (JEFF DANIELS), a Baptist preacher who holds his services in the local convenience store for lack of any proper space. While there are some kids around, they're too young such as Sweetie Pie Thomas (ELLE FANNING), seemingly stuck up like Amanda Wilkinson (COURTNEY JINES) or seem to revel in giving her a hard time like the young Dewberry brothers, Dunlap (NICK PRICE) and Stevie (LUKE BENWARD). With no mother -- she left when the girl was three -- and her dad being unable or unwilling to talk about her, Opal's future seems isolated at best.

Things change, however, when her dad sends her to the local grocery store for a few items. It's there that she witnesses the manager and others trying to corral a dog that's on the loose inside the store. When she hears the manager call for the pound, Opal lies that the dog is hers and - spotting the store's name at the last second -- calls him Winn-Dixie.

Although the manager of the trailer park where they live -- Mr. Alfred (B.J. HOPPER) -- says dogs aren't allowed there, Opal's dad reluctantly agrees to let her keep the dog temporarily until they find its owner. Despite that directive, she and Winn-Dixie soon become fast friends, with Opal discussing all of her feelings to the dog that ends up introducing the girl to some of the town's inhabitants.

They include Otis (DAVE MATTHEWS), a guitar playing drifter who's running the pet store and gives Opal a job in exchange for a dog collar; bookworm Franny Block (EVA MARIE SAINT) who runs the local library and has no family; and Gloria Dump (CICELY TYSON) who the Dewberry boys claim is a witch, but is really a nearly blind recluse and recovering alcoholic.

As she and Winn-Dixie meet and befriend all of them, Opal hopes to learn more about her absent mom, all while helping her dad and the others face and overcome their individual issues and problems.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
All people need friends, but that's especially true of children. An only child who lives in a remote locale or who's just moved to a new place will often create imaginary friends to fill the void or even turn a pet into a playmate and confidant. The latter is the case with India Opal Buloni, a ten-year-old girl whose mother disappeared some seven years earlier and who's just relocated to a sleepy little Florida town with her preacher father.

In serious need of some companionship and a sounding board for her unresolved parental issues, Opal finds both in a stray mutt that she names for the grocery store in which she discovers him. While not overtly magical, the pooch introduces her to various townies and thus allows for individual healing of their, her and her father's damaged souls as well as the collective rebirth of community in the town.

I can see why "Because of Winn-Dixie" -- adapted by Joan Singleton (making her screenwriting debut) from the beloved novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo -- would appeal to kids. While it's not exactly a true "boy and his dog" flick, its star is a child, the dog is cute, and the two form a friendship that solves the kid's mysteries and problems.

I'm not familiar with the original work so comparisons are moot, but the film's biggest problem is its heavy-handed and overt profundity. While the intentions are honorable, the metaphors about life and how to live it are so thick that they nearly suffocate this shaggy dog tale like a million fleas.

It's possible that DiCamillo and director Wayne Wang ("Maid in Manhattan," "Anywhere But Here") went so far with said material to ensure that all kids -- the youngest of which won't always recognize subtle themes -- would get the various messages. Whatever the case, the result is often a bit much for older viewers to stomach. That's particularly true about some discussion and then activity regarding lozenges from the town's long since shuttered candy factory that many of the characters end up trying.

Beyond the fact that they taste "sad" and "melancholy" -- no wonder the factory didn't make it -- the candy only elicits more of the metaphors and message-heavy dialogue that feels too overwrought for the rest of what the picture's offering.

The unintentional result is that the film ends up feeling like that candy -- both sweet and sour. It doesn't help that the stock characters Opal and Winn-Dixie encounter feel like message-laden constructs rather than flesh and blood people. I understand that this is really just a fable of sorts, and at times it and its characters feel like a juvenile and watered-down version of Tim Burton's "Big Fish."

Even so, the townies are nothing more than symbolic caricatures. Singer turned actor Dave Matthews ("Where the Red Fern Grows") plays the drifter with a sordid past and a magical way of calming the wild assortment of animals under his care with his folksy guitar playing. Eva Marie Saint ("On the Waterfront," "Grand Prix") embodies the bookworm and town librarian whose sole friends and family are the books surrounding her. Then there's Cicely Tyson ("Sounder," "Fried Green Tomatoes") playing the misunderstood loner with an alcoholic past and a reputation for being the town's outskirt witch in the eyes of the local kids.

Each serves their purpose in helping the girl help herself by helping them (sorry, I couldn't help myself), but it would have been nice if they were rounded out more or at least weren't so blatantly wearing their story mission on their sleeves.

Jeff Daniels ("Gods and Generals," "Speed") fares a bit better playing the single preacher father who misses his wife but is reluctant to discuss her with their young daughter. While not always completely believable, that subplot provides the film's lone bit of intrigue where we wonder if the father will ever discuss the mother, all while trying to figure out if she's dead or simply (and more disturbingly) abandoned her daughter due to her own set of personal demons.

Now for the film's strong suits. Annasophia Robb (who makes her big screen debut) is as cute as a button. Although she might not have the acting prowess of a Dakota Fanning (whose younger sister Elle has a similarly cute role in the film), she has a winning presence that lights up the screen and makes the flawed film much easier to watch.

Then, of course, there's the title character, a lovable pooch that might not win the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, but is just as cute as his human companion and will likely have dog lovers in canine cinematic heaven. Other than sporting a somewhat human-like smile -- that I fear was likely computer generated or at least enhanced -- the pooch doesn't possess any remarkable physical or acting attributes. Nevertheless, he's pleasing to watch.

As are parts of the film that nicely mix charm, sincerity, a certain innocuousness and yes, loads of cuteness. Unfortunately, all of that has to dog paddle through mediocre direction, some cardboard characters and a grocery store of metaphors and messages that are too thick and heavy-handed for a film like this. "Because of Winn-Dixie" rates as 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed February 12, 2005 / Posted February 18, 2005

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