A Girl's Best Friend
Never being without a dog or two while growing up, I found it easy to empathize with the 10-year-old girl who adopts a homeless canine in Because of Winn-Dixie. When I was a child, we shared our home with dogs of various breeds and sizes, including beagles, cocker spaniels, mongrels, blood hounds and Great Danes -- but I can’t recall any of our pets smiling like Winn-Dixie, the mischievous sheepdog responsible for stealing this heartwarming movie from its human actors.
Based on a popular children’s book by Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie features promising newcomer AnnaSophia Robb as Opal Buloni, a lonesome pre-teen who moves to a new town with her father, played by a low-key Jeff Daniels (Fly Away Home). Opal’s dad is a minister, so everyone -- even Opal -- calls him “Preacher.” Abandoned by her mother years ago, Opal pressures Preacher to talk about her mom, but he always avoids the subject.
Without any friends in their latest community, Opal jumps at the chance to rescue a huge dog after he runs wildly through the local supermarket. When the manager threatens to call the pound, Opal claims the animal belongs to her and that his name is Winn-Dixie, the same as the supermarket he so energetically trashed.
Persuading Preacher to let her keep Winn-Dixie won’t be quite as easy, but who can resist Opal’s big blue-green eyes as she pleads her case. “I need a friend like Winn-Dixie,” she begs -- and soon the smiling dog works his magic on Preacher. He also helps Opal make new friends and get closer to her father.
Part of the charm of this excellent family film comes from the eccentric characters Opal befriends after Winn-Dixie makes the initial contacts. Veteran actresses Eva Marie Saint (North by Northwest) and Cecily Tyson (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman) stand out as a librarian afraid of bears and a near-blind woman thought by children to be a witch, respectively. But, surprisingly, my favorite human performance here is by musician Dave Matthews. Playing a pet store clerk who reluctantly hires Opal to assist him with his chores, Matthews projects a shy sensitivity and uses his musical ability as a way to enhance his sympathetic character. I wanted Matthews to have more screen time; here's hoping he appears in additional films.
Directed by Wayne Wang (Anywhere But Here), Because of Winn-Dixie runs about a half hour too long and contains some silly slapstick scenes that could have been cut. Still, the movie won me over with its emphasis on love, friendship, tolerance and the importance of community spirit. And, of course, there’s that wonderful smiling dog.
(Released by Twentieth Century Fox and rated “PG” for thematic elements and brief mild language.)