Kate DiCamillo’s Newbery award-winning 2001 book, “Because of Winn-Dixie,” has now been made into a children's movie by the oddest collection of talents. The result is a very mixed bag, with moments that are so stilted and clunky that you feel embarrassed for the actors.
At its worst, it suggests a truly painful episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” with Harland Williams playing a Southern small-town policeman so inept he makes Don Knotts look like a smoothie. At its best, the movie offers a chance to catch up on the careers of Eva Marie Saint, who makes the most of her brief scenes as Miss Franny, a spinster librarian, and Cicely Tyson, who perks things up every time she appears as Gloria, a half-blind eccentric with an alcohol-fueled past.
Both are befriended by 10-year-old Opal, a resourceful child played with exaggerated vigor by AnnaSophia Robb, a young television actress (“Samantha: An American Girl Holiday”). This marks her big-screen debut, and she plays Opal like a hopped-up 21st Century Pollyanna, applying glib “glad girl” solutions to the problems of the local curmudgeons — all of whom seem more than willing to be heartwarmed.
The movie also marks the big-screen debut of Dave Matthews, without his band, as an ex-convict named Otis who manages a quiet pet store. In one of the pleasanter episodes, he strums on his guitar to soothe his rabbits and parrots, letting them out of their cages and telling Opal that wild things shouldn’t be caged.
That sentiment, which Gloria echoes more explicitly, applies especially to the restless mother who abandoned Opal when she was three. Her minister father, whom she calls “The Preacher” (Jeff Daniels), is in the process of raising her and trying to establish a church in a convenience store, where small crowds gather on folding chairs and hope for a little entertainment along with their prayer service.
Just when her father seems to have exhausted the locals’ tolerance for his uninspiring sermons, diversion arrives in the form of Opal’s pet dog, Winn-Dixie, which she named after the grocery store where she adopted the stray animal. Winn-Dixie howls along to the church choir’s performance of “Amazing Grace” (because, Opal explains, he doesn’t know the words) and chases an amazingly tame mouse through the congregation.
The sketchy screenplay is by Joan Singleton, a first-time writer who usually acts as a producer (Stephen King’s “Graveyard Shift”). The director is Wayne Wang, whose wide-ranging career includes “Smoke,” “Chinese Box” and the sexually explicit “The Center of the World.” He isn’t the first director to be defeated by children and animals, but did his handling of Opal and her dog have to be quite so unconvincing?
About the only person here who seems to be exploring familiar territory is Tyson, who earned her only Oscar nomination 32 years ago for “Sounder,” another Southern family saga named after a dog — also based on a Newbery prize winner. Tackling every scene as if the material warranted her complete attention and professionalism, she makes it all look easy.