Perhaps Judge Diane Wild would have enjoyed this more if she were a ten-year-old girl with a fondness for physical humor, alcoholism and ex-cons.
Discover what happens when you go looking for a miracle and a miracle comes looking for you.
Because of Winn-Dixie is based on a 2001 Newbery Honor Book by author Kate Di Camillo. Directed by Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan, The Joy Luck Club), it boasts an intriguing cast including Jeff Daniels (who seems to have become the go-to guy for working with kids and animals), musician Dave Matthews, acting legends Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint, and Dakota Fanning's little sister Elle. While entertaining enough for the kids, Because of Winn-Dixie doesn't quite live up to its pedigree.
Facts of the Case
10-year-old Opal (AnnaSophia Robb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and her preacher father (Jeff Daniels, Fly Away home) have moved to the tiny southern town of Naomi, where she has no friends and is having trouble fitting in. When she encounters a scruffy dog wreaking havoc in a Winn-Dixie grocery, she names him after the store, brings him home, and convinces her reluctant father to let her keep him. Thanks to the antics of the boisterous Winn-Dixie, Opal finds herself becoming connected to other lonely townspeople, like drifter Otis (Dave Matthews), librarian Miss Frannie (Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest), blind recovering alcoholic Gloria (Cicely Tyson, Diary of a Mad Black Woman), the bratty Dewberry boys (Nick Price and Luke Benward), seemingly snobby Amanda (Courtney Jines), sadly dogless Sweetie Pie Thomas (Elle Fanning), and even her own father, who blames himself for her mother's abandonment long ago.
The best children's movies speak to both kids and adults, and become classics because they live in our minds long after we're the age targeted by the film. Because of Winn-Dixie has a formula kids will enjoy—a plucky and vivacious heroine, an adorable dog and various cute animals, an eccentric group of over-the-top characters, slapstick humor, and big acting. But it lacks the ability to speak to adults.
I like dogs, but Winn-Dixie would test my patience, too. He's a destructive little guy, though his destructive ways are what draws Opal into the lives of her neighbors. The constant dog chase scenes have a tiresome sameness to them, but the physical comedy is likely to be a hit with the young ones.
The characters become caricatures, with the spinster librarian who must be lonely because she never married, the gruff old man who threatens to kick Opal and her father out of their trailer because they aren't allowed dogs, and the misunderstood outcast the town's kids think is a witch. The simplicity and broad strokes of the movie give a rose-colored look at the world that leaves us with the impression that 10-year-old girls should implicitly trust ex-cons and that alcoholism is almost beautiful. But these are well-buried sentiments that don't really become part of the message, which is the importance of sharing sorrows and joys.
There's an odd lack of a sense of time or place in the movie, with a mix of old and new music, and the feel of an old-fashioned town with modern touches.
But what's missing most from Because of Winn-Dixie is a sense of magic that would make the dog's power over people come to life, and sustain the whimsical touches like the lozenges that taste like sorrow.
The DVD includes both fullscreen and 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen versions. While I'm an advocate of widescreen, I believe even more strongly in choice. The picture quality shows few flaws, and maintains vivid colors and natural flesh tones. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio doesn't have quite enough to do during the more dialogue driven bulk of the film, but the surrounds really come to life with the musical selections and thunderstorm scenes. Both subtitles and dubbing are offered in French and Spanish, and again the ability to choose is a benefit, particularly since children can't easily read subtitles, but many adults hate dubbing.
The extras are little more than the usual electronic press kit, with a couple of featurettes with brief interviews and many clips, and too much duplication between them. Kids will appreciate AnnaSophia Robb's commentary on selected scenes, amounting to about 10 minutes, but the full length commentary with Jeff Daniels and producer Trevor Albert will barely hold the interest of the adults in the room. A gag reel has some nice deleted moments, including Jeff Daniels struggling to maintain his composure while holding a wriggling mouse (and I can't blame him, because I would swear the hideous thing was a rat if they didn't insist on its mouseness).
Because of Winn-Dixie isn't likely to become a true children's classic, but kids will enjoy it and their parents should be able to tolerate it well.
Guilty only of being a bit too innocent.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Jeff Daniels and Producer Trevor Albert
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