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'Winn-Dixie' is all stories and no bite

The screenplay changes little from the popular children's book but takes some of the life out of vivid characters.

February 18, 2005|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

Sometimes a movie can be so faithful to the book it's based on as to squeeze the life out of it. Such is the case with "Because of Winn-Dixie," adapted from Kate DiCamillo's award-winning children's book. The novel, likened by critics to the writing of Carson McCullers and Harper Lee, is a sweet, melancholic ode to the Southern tradition of storytelling and the characters -- real and apocryphal -- to whom being a good listener can introduce you.

The movie, which changes very little from the story about a lonesome young girl named Opal and the dog she finds at a supermarket who changes her life and the lives of those she meets, unfortunately flattens that world, leaving a dreary, uninspired tale in its place.

Ten-year-old Opal has recently moved to Naomi, Fla., (population, 2,524) with her preacher father who has taken over a congregation that worships in a former convenience store. Opal has yet to make any friends and has increasingly begun to miss and wonder about her mother, who left seven years earlier. One day, the preacher sends her to the local Winn-Dixie grocery store, where she finds a stray dog, and she impetuously names him after the market.

The dog, Winn-Dixie, is huge -- able to place his paws on a grown man's shoulders and look him in the eye -- and it has the uncanny ability to smile. Opal's veil of loneliness quickly lifts as Winn-Dixie drags her around Naomi, alternately getting into trouble and creating a series of situations in which they meet some of the town's loners and misfits.

Young AnnaSophia Robb, making her film debut, is an agreeable enough presence as Opal but lacks the beguiling candor that makes the book so appealing. Too often she is tentative, when the character in the book would be assertive and persuasive.

Screenwriter Joan Singleton and director Wayne Wang echo the episodic structure of the book, in which each new character regales Opal with his or her story. But whereas the book's Opal leaps off the page as a conduit for the reader, interpreting the stories along the way, here she is reduced to a passive listener. The result is a ragged sequence of vignettes that fail to form a convincing narrative.

The supporting roles are well cast, with Jeff Daniels as the understanding if remote preacher; Cicely Tyson as Gloria Dump, a blind woman children believe to be a witch; Eva Marie Saint as Miss Franny, the spinster librarian who provides the sorrowful-tasting vintage Litmus Lozenges; and musician Dave Matthews as Otis, a painfully shy drifter with a gift for song.

Although Wang captures the chipped-paint, rusted-out feel of Naomi in details such as the convenience-store-turned-church and with a strong, folk-infused soundtrack, "Because of Winn-Dixie" never quite works as a film. The failure to create appropriate cinematic metaphors reduces it to "happiness is a warm puppy" superficiality.


'Because of Winn-Dixie'

MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and brief mild language

Times guidelines: Brief discussion of alcoholism

AnnaSophia Robb...Opal

Jeff Daniels...Preacher

Cicely Tyson...Gloria

Eva Marie Saint...Miss Franny

Dave Matthews...Otis

A 20th Century Fox and Walden Media presentation, released by Fox. Director Wayne Wang. Producers Trevor Albert, Joan Singleton. Executive producer Ralph Singleton. Screenplay by Joan Singleton, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo. Director of photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editor Deirdre Slevin. Costume designer Hope Hanafin. Music Rachel Portman. Production designer Donald Graham Burt. Set decorator Marthe Pineau. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

In general release.

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