Friday, March 04, 2005

Because of Winn-Dixie / ** (PG)

Opal: AnnaSophia Robb
Preacher: Jeff Daniels
Gloria Dump: Cicely Tyson
Otis: Dave Matthews
Miss Franny: Eva Marie Saint
Amanda Wilkinson: Courtney Jines
Dunlap Dewberry: Nick Price
Stevie Dewberry: Luke Benward

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Wayne Wang. Written by Joan Singleton. Based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic elements and brief mild language).

I can recall going to “family” movies as a child, usually a matinee. I suppose movies have always filled me with a sense of wonder, but never so much as when I was a child. The Bad News Bears is one in particular I remember my parents -- it may have been even some other relative, grand parents or an aunt -- shuffling me off to without a suspicion or expectation in my head about what I was to see. I loved it. It made me want to play baseball -- for the brief time that it existed as a movie fantasy before its social reality was revealed to my reclusive nature.

A couple of weekends ago I gave the same experience to my own three-year old son, Jack. Well, his grandparents did anyway. I would have waited for a movie I expected more from myself. The movie was Because of Winn-Dixie, and Jack seemed to love it to the same degree I loved such innocent experiences as a child as well. He cried when the credits started rolling -- not so much because that particular film was over as because his trip to the theater was over. I only wish I could have experienced the film as he did, through the filter of the experience making anything on the screen worth sitting through.

Because of Winn-Dixie is an innocent sort of film that offers no surprises and a charming leading character with a charming leading dog and that is about it. Newcomer AnnaSophia Robb plays Opal, who says she did not find the stray dog she would hastily name after the local supermarket the Winn-Dixie, but rather Winn-Dixie found her.

Opal is a transplant to the town of Naomi, Fla. with her father who is a preacher for a church located in a closed down convenience store. Jeff Daniels (Fly Away Home) plays Opal’s father, whom she awkwardly refers to as Preacher rather than Dad for no good reason other than that is what quirky movie kids do to reject typical familial structures, as a man without much social or parental eloquence. He means well but provides little emotional comfort for his motherless daughter. The mystery of what happened to Opal’s mother I will leave so.

Opal is a loner, who has trouble making friends until she is introduced to a stray dog in an odd and whimsical sequence set in the local grocery palace, the Winn-Dixie. There is a disturbance in the store while Opal is picking up a couple of items for her father that has all of the employees of the Winn-Dixie running up and down the isles after it. I liked the way the audience is only given glimpses of what is going on, just as an actual customer of the Winn-Dixie wouldn’t be aware of what was happening. It turns out the disturbance has four paws, a wagging tail and a shaggy coat. In order to save the beast from the pound Opal claims it is hers. When pressed to call the dog by name Opal calls it by the first name that comes into her sight, the name of the very store she is in. Luckily for her and the dog both, the dog responds to Winn-Dixie.

After their “magical” bond is formed, Opal’s life changes forever and becomes a series of what passes for adventures in backwater small towns of America. I have to say this movie is accurate about that; there really isn’t a whole helluva lot to do in a town of about 100 people.

Their adventures lead them to make friends with an eclectic group of characters, including a bear-fearing librarian played by Eva Marie Saint (I Dreamed of Africa), the town’s reputed blind witch played by Cicely Tyson (A Lesson Before Dying), and the drifter/musician/animal tamer/roughneck/nice former felon played by Dave Matthews (Yes, that Dave Matthews!). These strange outcast adults form a life lesson support system for Opal that guides her into becoming the loving, caring girl she… already was.

Winn-Dixie has a good heart I suppose, but everything in it exists solely to fulfill long played out Hollywood traditions of how adults would like children’s lives to be. Instead of having any real child friends and childhood experiences, Opal’s life is populated with disparate adults who are better adjusted emotionally, or affected by only minor character flaws, than anyone in real life, let alone people who have been cast off by mainstream society.

But more importantly Winn-Dixie is just plain dull. Director Wayne Wang (Smoke) has had success in the past with films about eccentric adult characters working through everyday problems, usually with deep emotional cores; but this attempt to tackle a child’s point of view misses the free spirited resilience of being a kid. What pulls a kid through childhood isn’t their ability to relate to adults, but rather the way a child can just let the real world slide away and escape into their own fantasy world. Wayne touches upon some good ideas that could have gone somewhere, like the way Opal imagines the stories she is told with a literalness only a child could apply, but he abandons these ideas for the adult weirdoes that are going to make everything all better for her.

I hope Jack will remember his Winn-Dixie experience fondly. I am sure he will, just as I remember the experience of going to films like The Bad News Bears, Trail of the Pink Panther and Benji when I was little. The nostalgia I feel for the experience, however, does not necessarily mean those films were any good. Because of Winn-Dixie is not good. And why, in this digital age, do filmmakers feel it is necessary to digitally impose facial expressions onto animals as if their faces are constructed the same as humans? Any live action movie about a dog that literally smiles is one of which to be wary.

No comments: