'Winn-Dixie' a Winner
The movie brings to the screen an array of often-neglected themes, and although most of the scenes are chock full of values, the positive messages come to viewers in an understated way, whispering like soft Southern breezes.
Based on the Newberry Award-winning best seller of the same name, the story contains a familiar plot line, that of a lonely young girl and her adopted dog. But this refreshing variation derives its uniqueness from its characters.
The Twain-like tale brings to life some of the most endearing figures, who teach some exquisite lessons as they lithely participate in the unfolding drama.
Director Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club") had his work cut out for him on this assignment. Although he had at his disposal a veteran cast, which includes Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint, Wang had to somehow channel the energy of the kids, dogs, parrots and farm creatures and still keep the project from becoming maudlin. He did it with aplomb.
The movie centers on Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) and her minister dad (Jeff Daniels), who recently moved to the little town of Naomi, Florida.
The church actually meets in the local convenience store, where congregants sit on folding lawn chairs and fan themselves with newspaper pages.
As the new arrival, Opal is desperately lonely. The absence of her mother, who left when she was a mere infant, compounds her feelings of isolation.
While on a quest to make new friends, Opal meets up with a stray dog that's racing through the aisles of the town's grocery store causing havoc. She saves the pooch from being sent to the pound by claiming it and naming it "Winn-Dixie" after the chain.
The dog has a number of uncanny gifts. Besides being able to smile, Winn-Dixie leads Opal to a variety of new friends and ultimately to the discovery of some down-to-earth wisdom.
With the help of Winn-Dixie, Opal meets a singing pet store manager named Otis (Dave Matthews in an auspicious debut), a spinster librarian named Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint) and an eccentric woman named Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), who is thought by the locals to be a witch.
Miss Franny gives Opal some very special and historically significant candy lozenges. She tells the young girl that the confection combines sweetness with sorrow. As Opal shares the candy with others, she learns secrets that are both joyous and bitter.
The film is a welcome retort to the negative Southern stereotypes found in many Hollywood productions most recently, Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," which features a group of cartoon-like Southern "trailer trash" characters.
The preacher and his daughter live at the Friendly Corners Trailer Park, and while the place is rural and the folks poor, it is nonetheless depicted with greater complexity, depth and dignity than we're used to seeing in contemporary Tinseltown fare.
When it comes to portrayals, the Hollywood of late has also given short shrift to people of traditional faith. This film, in contrast, has scenes of worship and prayer that are effortless, joyful and sometimes even accompanied by a giggle or two.
If you like the smell of the air after a thunderstorm, the sight of friends embracing each other and the melodic tones of children's laughter, you'll love "Because of Winn-Dixie." And yes, you can take the whole family.