by Michael Bowen
Because of Winn-Dixie is a heartwarming movie that lifts our spirits, assuring us that if only we overcome our guilt, surely we will enjoy a brighter future.
Because of Winn-Dixie is sentimental, predictable mush filled with stereotyped characters and Important Symbols from which we must learn and over which we must cry.
Straddling the border between the good and the forgettable, Winn-Dixie features a 10-year-old pixie named Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), who's lonely because, when she was 3, her mother packed up and left -- partly because her father, known as "Preacher" (Jeff Daniels), is always moving from one Baptist congregation to another. The pixie adopts Winn-Dixie -- a dog named for the store where, after some quick thinking, she claims him. With the goofy pooch's help, she befriends a bunch of eccentrics in her small Florida town -- each of whom, naturally, has a secret source of social ineptitude or guilt.
There's a formula at work here, and it's sho'nuff gonna lead to a reconciliation. Cynics will amuse themselves scoffing at a movie that's so earnest about values such as compassion, community and hope. And of course since humanity has completely learned those lessons -- with such abundant evidence of it all around us, every day -- there's no need to repeat lessons like those, not at all.
Those same cynics will point out the stereotypes among the townspeople, too: the grumpy landlord, the lonely spinster, the eccentric crone, the misfit with a mysterious past. Yet while these are characters we've seen before, stereotypes only become clich & eacute;s because they have a basis in truth: We've seen fictional characters like this a lot because, out there in the real world outside the movies, there are a lot of people just like this.
So you can look at Winn-Dixie both ways: It's heartwarming/It's stupid. It depends on your age. The movie's cute kids, lovable dog and talking animals (cockatoos in a pet store) will appeal not only to kids but also to still-young-at-heart adults.
Yet for a film that has its heart in the right place, there are too many eye-rolling moments. Director Wayne Wang inserts juvenile humor -- an infantile store manager, a Keystone Kop who makes wedgie jokes -- to capture the low-threshold-for-comedy laughter of the little ones. But he's also intent on underscoring the meaning of his metaphors -- sour-tasting candy, birds in cages, empty bottles, thunderstorms -- and in case we've missed such literary qualities, they all have their meanings explained to us, usually by one precocious kid or another.
The movie gets us in the heart, then insists on explaining things so the head will be up to speed, too -- which only makes the heart groan and forfeit the experience. At least Eva Marie Saint and Cicely Tyson make welcome returns. The delightful and eclectic soundtrack (Bobby Darin! Emmylou!) is already a featured selection at Barnes & amp; Noble. As for Dave Matthews as the misfit pet shop boy: He can act and he can strum a guitar -- but the little ditty about being an unlucky man or a chrysalis or caged butterfly or something ... that was a mistake.
While I'd recommend this movie to adults (like me) who enjoy sentimental tales -- and to teens and the parents of teens --Winn-Dixie, ironically, isn't all that suitable for kids of the age it portrays. If you haven't made it to middle school yet, have your parents wait for the video, when you can curl up in your jammies and discuss the movie's finer points about guilt, forgiveness, self-assurance and compassion.
My 8-year-old daughter was a squirmy worm through all the episodes of emotional self-revelation. Her favorite bits, it turns out, were the part where the bird said "Shut up, idiot!" and the part where the dog was burping.
Somehow she didn't notice the movie's larger themes, and all because of a dog. All because of Winn-Dixie.
Publication date: 2/24/05