Newcomer Annasophia Robb channels the cheerful innocence of Little Orphan Annie and Lassie’s Timmy in this film version of the best-selling children’s book, Because of Winn-Dixie.
With big, round eyes, honey hair and apple cheeks, Robb beams as Opal, a 10-year-old whose preacher father (Jeff Daniels) keeps her family on the move, never settling anywhere long enough to grow roots. The latest move lands them in rundown Naomi, Fla., whereupon Opal finds a stray dog in a Winn-Dixie grocery store. The pup leads Opal to heal broken hearts, including her own.
Robb’s unchecked sweetness and a spectacular gospel/folk/ blues sound track lend Because of Winn-Dixie all the good feelings of cute puppies and Sunday mornings, which work great if you are 10 years old, a morning person or a dog lover.
Crankier or just plain more sophisticated audience members won’t be won over as easily. This is not a kid movie that plays well to adults, or at least not to adults who’ve spent a lifetime watching countless movies and TV shows about kids and puppies getting lost and reunited.
That’s not to say it doesn’t touch on some tough issues. Opal’s mother drank too much, and then left when she was only 3. Her father never talks about it, leaving Opal alone to work out her feelings. One character is a recovering alcoholic, another lost a brother, and another spent time in jail. These stories of pain and abandonment are handled with honesty, but only on a level appropriate for a young audience. There’s a sentiment in Because of Winn-Dixie that a party invitation and a sweet song can heal most anything.
One shouldn’t expect much more depth from a movie that features Dave Matthews as a guitar-strumming drifter with a gift for charming barnyard animals and family pets.
Despite the fact that Matthews is conspicuously missing from the sound track, artists like Shawn Colvin, The Be Good Tanyas, Finn Brothers and Emmylou Harris provide a medley of tunes far more inspired than the usual kiddie-flick drivel.
But for every honest emotion director Wayne Wang (Maid in Manhattan, Joy Luck Club, Smoke) manages from his cast, there’s a “Lassie, come home!” scene pandering right behind.
Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.