Because of Winn-Dixie Review
Ten-year-old India “Opal” Buloni, played by newcomer AnnaSophia Robb, is a lonely girl who sports overalls and an American Girl smile. Opal is distinguished from the other townsfolk of sleepy Naomi, Florida with her odd name and piercing blue eyes, framed by dark mascara and perfectly plucked eyebrows. This artistic choice on the part of the makeup artist gives the young actress a surreal appearance to stand out in a movie lacking any standout plot or character development.
Jeff Daniels clunks around in a despairingly mediocre role as Opal’s father, a man known solely as the Preacher. He pines for his former wife, who left the family when Opal was three, and works too much to have time for his daughter. As the weary and well-meaning father and parishioner of a convenience store-turned-Baptist church, he dispenses lines such as, “There’s nothing wrong with making church more convenient,” with forced chuckles to his meager congregation.
This example of sharing faith, when it is easy to do so, defines a town composed of people that have forgotten how to share their sadness and joy. Opal and Preacher, like the other townsfolk, live in their own bubbles of life, brushing against each other’s quirks and eccentricities as carelessly as one browses the aisles of a grocery store.
Everything changes one day as Opal discovers an orphaned dog while running errands for her father. And so as banjos and guitars wail away in the country-twanged soundtrack, Winn-Dixie (named for the supermarket where she found him) enters the life of Naomi, Florida.
Winn-Dixie is a stray who also happens to be perfectly trained to sit, smile, whimper, and howl in harmony to church hymns on command. With the clichéd carefree curiosity of a dog, he proceeds to win the hearts of the townspeople and mend their relationships.
Such beneficiaries of the dog’s daring deeds include Otis, a pet-store owner played by a ballad-crooning Dave Matthews, whose audience consists of parrots, rabbits, and the occasional goat. As the movie’s sole instrument for bringing in the teenage masses, Matthews’ character is, appropriately, depicted as the “magic man”, whose music eventually brings a wandering Winn-Dixie home.
Another townsperson won over by canine charm is Gloria Dump, (Cicely Tyson) the town eccentric who “sees better with her heart than her eyes.” She inhabits a house in the backfields filled with oddities such as a massive tree decorated with whiskey bottles from her younger days. Her too-obvious name, describing her flyaway hair and mismatched rags, makes for another trite attempt at cleverness by the writers of a banal movie.
Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint) is the city library’s only employee who once fought off a grizzly with a well-read hardcover of War and Peace. An expensive cameo by a veteran actress (On the Waterfront, North by Northwest), Miss Franny’s character is suitably that of the wise old teacher. The highlight of her role involves magical sadness-inducing lozenges that allow the listless residents of Naomi to express emotions to their neighbors.
The insertion of these famous faces does little to aid this faltering family film. Their roles are defined by sickly-sweet feel-good phrases that fade into forgettable nausea. The film is as fabricated and superficial as the miracle candies that save the town—but not the audience—from emotional apathy. Eclectic without being endearing, unrealistic without being fantastic, and strange for no other reason than to be strange, the movie is a helpless collection of disparate elements unable to come across as a cohesive entity.
In the end, the sadness of motherless Opal is dull, the changes of heart haphazard, and the pivotal realization – that townsfolk seemingly so different nevertheless share in common a love for Winn-Dixie – falls flat. And no matter how many times director Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club) bridges his scenes with beautiful images of towering oak trees draped with Spanish moss and childhood picnics set against a sun-drenched palette, the film never inspires any more than a dry chuckle or a single sniffle.