1½ stars (out of 4)
When India "Opal" Buloni (newcomer AnnaSophia Robb) and her preacher father (Jeff Daniels) move to small-town Naomi, Fla., they don't fit in very well.
Opal's dad has a tough time saving souls in a convenience store-turned-House-of-the-Lord and the precocious 10-year-old isn't making any friendsuntil she meets Winn-Dixie, that is. After insinuating itself into the family, the mangy orphan pooch leads Opal on a journey of discovery and friendship.
On paper, it sounds like a pretty standard, solid kids' movie. On screen, it's not so lucky. Wayne Wang's "Because of Winn-Dixie" tries hard to be sweet but plays like "Pollyanna" with fleas.
If you haven't looked at movie listings lately, January and February releases are generally reserved for "problem child" moviesfilms the studios don't know how to market or movies they know are dogs. "Because of Winn-Dixie" fittingly belongs to the latter category. Wang, the talented director of "Smoke" and "The Joy Luck Club," can't quite get this stray of a movie on a leash.
Part of the problem is casting and the promotion of small-town stereotypes, though DanielsGod love 'imtries to anchor a movie that can't settle on a tone. None of the slapstick works, including Winn-Dixie's introductory rampage through a supermarket, and screenwriter Joan Singleton's dialogue wavers between the sentimental and the deeply, transparently sentimental.
Example: When Opal's dad attempts to explain why her mother left seven years prior, Opal says, "Was it my fault?" It comes across more like something out of a child psychology book than what an actual child might say.
As the stereotypical "misunderstood outcast," Cicely Tyson plays a nearly blind, alcoholic recluse who befriends the little girl and teaches her about mistakes. The example of accepting this movie role doesn't appear as a life lesson, though it could.
Rock star Dave Matthews puts in an appearance as Otis, the sweet-hearted, guitar-toting ex-con who sings to animals in his cousin's pet store. Matthews isn't given much to do but uses his screen time wisely, choosing to underplay most of his moments with Opal, though he does strum through a couple of improv tunes.
Actress Eva Marie Saint turns in a memorable performance in a small role as librarian Franny Block, whose distant relative made a candy that was sweet but tasted like sorrow. It's these bits of magical realism and insightful detail that keep our attention when "Winn-Dixie" can't dig up enough dramatic tension to keep moving.
But candy with a touch of melancholythat's a metaphor befitting Wang's film itself: sweet, but sadly disappointing.
"Because of Winn-Dixie"
Directed by Wayne Wang; screenplay by Joan Singleton; based on the book by Kate DiCamillo; photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub; production designed by Donald Graham Burt; music by Rachel Portman; edited by Deirdre Slevin; produced by Trevor Albert and Joan Singleton. A Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:46. MPAA rating: PG (for thematic elements and brief mild language).
India "Opal" Buloni - AnnaSophia Robb
Preacher - Jeff Daniels
Gloria Dump - Cicely Tyson
Otis - Dave Matthews
Franny Block - Eva Marie Saint