Uneven though it is, "Because of Winn-Dixie," based on Kate Di Camillo's novel, is tough to dislike. Yarn about a lonely girl, a homeless dog and their healing effect on a disjointed Florida community features a gifted, eclectic adult cast that helps overshadow its 10-year-old lead's inexperience.

Uneven though it is, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” based on Kate Di Camillo’s novel, is tough to dislike. Yarn about a lonely girl, a homeless dog and their healing effect on a disjointed Florida community features a gifted, eclectic adult cast that helps overshadow its 10-year-old lead’s inexperience. Generally pleasing where it could have been sickly sweet, pic will undoubtedly be marketed by Fox for its Feb. 18 opening as a contempo family classic, a movie to which kids can take their grandparents. While theatrical bonanza seems a long shot, film should enjoy a thriving ancillary life in DVD.

Given “Winn-Dixie’s” appeal to the under-13 and over-60 sets, helmer Wayne Wang seems an odd choice. Though Wang has previous experience with book-to-screen adaptations (“The Joy Luck Club”), his interests have never veered toward this sort of tyke-driven sentimentality. Wang has stated the characters in his movies share a common sense of longing — a tenuous thread at best, but one that does permeate this film.

Left by her mother when she was a toddler for reasons unknown to her, Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) aches for a fulfilling home life, but her emotionally distant preacher dad (Jeff Daniels) is oblivious to her needs. When Opal discovers an abandoned mutt whom she names Winn-Dixie (after the local supermarket), the new friends embark on a summer of adventure as they discover others who share a similar need to connect.

Meandering through their small Southern community, Opal and Winn-Dixie begin to dismantle misconceptions: They befriend Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), a librarian who regales them with stories of her childhood; Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson), an eccentric recluse mistakenly thought to be a witch; and Otis (singer Dave Matthews), an oddball loner who manages the local pet shop and serenades the animals with his guitar.

Back at home, Opal’s dad, advised by their landlord the dog must go, sets about finding it a new owner. But he’s also pleased to see his daughter so happy, and as his crusty exterior starts to crack, he begins to unlock his cache of painful private memories.

Wang and scribe Joan Singleton cut back and forth to interweave the stories, leading to a celebration that unites the characters for the first time.

“Winn Dixie” is never quite as poignant as it means to be, except when it’s not trying so hard, a flaw mostly traceable to Robb’s lack of depth. In the obligatory “don’t take my dog away” scene (Animal Control arrives to scoop up Winn-Dixie), the lovely, wide-eyed blonde doesn’t genuinely convey the terror a girl would feel at watching such an event.

It’s good to see vets Tyson and Saint on the bigscreen again. Singer Matthews imbues Otis with a natural, unaffected charm.

Kudos to the production team, including lenser Karl Walter Lindenlaub, who bathes the locations in a warm Southern light; production designer Donald Graham Burt, whose sets feel musty and real; and costume designer Hope Hanafin, whose outfits elucidate and embellish characters. Music by Rachel Portman provides narrative force and nuance, and thankfully avoids treacle. At 105 minutes, pic feels a bit weighty for younger audiences.

Because of Winn-Dixie

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Walden Media presentation. Produced by Trevor Albert, Joan V. Singleton. Executive producer, Ralph Singleton. Co- producer, Becki Cross Trujillo. Directed by Wayne Wang. Screenplay, Joan Singleton, based on the novel by Kate Di Camillo.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Karl Walter Lindenlaub; editor, Deirdre Slevin; music, Rachel Portman; production designer, Donald Graham Burt; art director, Monroe Kelly; set designer, Molly Mikula; costume designer, Hope Hanafin; sound, (Dolby DTS) Steve C. Aaron; casting, Todd M. Thaler. Reviewed at Santa Barbara Film Festival, Jan. 29, 2005. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

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

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