Because Of Winn-dixie

on February 18, 2005 by Kim Williamson
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There's the well-seasoned Wayne Wang who makes the indie-fare likes of "Smoke" and "The Center of the World," and there's the emerging other Wayne Wang, who makes the studio-fare likes of "Maid in Manhattan" and now "Because of Winn-Dixie." However down-home the story--it's a tale of a 10-year-old girl, Opal (generally fine newcomer AnnaSophia Robb), who's been torn from her former friendships and brought to a new life of loneliness in a tiny Southern town by her divorced father, an itinerant preacher (an underchallenged Jeff Daniels)--certain of the principals behind the production make for an unexpected mix of talents. Along with the Hong Kong-born Wang, there's singer/guitarist Dave Matthews, whose elusive turn as Otis, an inward soul just out of prison and helping run a pet store, is one of the film's unexpected highlights; screenwriter/producer Joan Singleton, a former Warner Bros. exec, here adapting a Kate DiCamillo children's novel; producer Trevor Albert ("The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen"), who had his start as Harold Ramis' assistant on "Caddyshack"; Rachel Portman, the exceptional composer for several dozen films, including "The Cider House Rules" and "Benny & Joon" among her luminous works; and, behind it all as the financial backer of the family film-oriented production company Walden Media (also behind the upcoming Christian-themed "Chronicles of Narnia"), the reclusive Philip Anschutz, who controls world-leading movie theatre chain Regal Entertainment.

Of the onscreen and behind-the-camera talents involved here, the most disappointing is Portman, who is given little room to shine among the many songtunes on the soundtrack; what notes she provides seem as if they're the ones who didn't make the cut in her moving "Nicholas Nickleby" score. But the most damaging is Singleton, whose script can never decide whether this is supposed to be an over-the-top comedy or a deeply moving drama--and doesn't do that well at either.

When Opal meets up at the local Winn-Dixie market one day with a stray dog who causes (supposedly) comic havoc as the workers try to capture him, only to leave fruits, vegetables and grocers strewn across the floors, the scene feels as if it was told to the accompaniment of a kazoo. When Opal has heart-to-hearts about life with longtime local residents Miss Franny (a wise old librarian played by Eva Marie Saint) and Gloria (a wizened old poor black woman played by Cicely Tyson), the homilies are relatively homely. Not helping the clash between froth and poignancy is a chock-a-block recutting of DiCamillo's flowing metaphor-amid-narrative. In the end, "Because of Winn-Dixie" comes across as a kind of student book report.

What makes that especially distressing is that one wants "Because of Winn-Dixie," so genial throughout, to succeed so much more than it does. However rote their roles, the players strive to capture the human side of their characters, and one feels that everyone involved wants the film to be a heartfelt classic. So genuine are the players' emotions as they interact--people closed upon themselves in a closed-down town, all of which are brought back to vibrancy by the power of a young girl and her dog--that the audience wishes for a classic too. If "Because of Winn-Dixie" could have figured out how to leave the slapstick behind and concentrate on the uplift, it might have been. Starring Jeff Daniels, AnnaSophia Robb, Dave Matthews, Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint. Directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Joan Singleton. Produced by Trevor Albert and Joan Singleton. A Fox release. Family/Drama. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief mild language. Running time: 106 min

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