Just four years ago, Wayne Wang saw the release of his NC-17 psychosexual drama The Center of the World. One Maid in Manhattan later, he's walking the dog in kiddie dramedy Because of Winn-Dixie. The ghastly previews signaled that Wang had taken leave of his senses, but Because of Winn-Dixie—based on the beloved novel by Kate DiCamillo—turns out to be a modest success for the family crowd.
Newcomer Anna-Sophia Robb plays Opal, who narrates the tale of a bittersweet (in that order) summer in the life of Naomi, Florida. Opal's mother absconded some years before, leaving the young tomboy in the brittle company of her preacher father (Jeff Daniels). New to town, Opal has no friends and no prospects, but a fateful trip to the Winn-Dixie supermarket changes all that. A canine scamp trashes the place, then pads up to Opal, who protectively claims the mutt as her own "Winn-Dixie."
"Just about everything good that happened that summer happened because of Winn-Dixie," we're told. Each episode that unfolds proves Winn-Dixie's matchmaking skills. In turn, Opal befriends a suspicious pet-shop proprietor (musician Dave Matthews), a lonely old librarian (Eva Marie Saint), and a blind recluse (Cicely Tyson) who's branded as a witch by the other kids. Matthews fans, take note: he breaks out the guitar for several interludes culminating in a singalong of the traditional "Glory Glory."
Wang occasionally succumbs to overly goofy slapstick (beware of Harlan Williams, as an mean and inept sheriff) and cheesy musical montage (a doggie bath sequence set to "Splish-Splash"), but Because of Winn-Dixie has a down-homey look that takes in prettily weathered Southern structures and big ol' trees that look like they have stories to tell. Wang also creatively applies super-grainy film to the visual expression of Opal's wishful thoughts.
Tyson's Gloria gently explains to Opal the sad lesson of the "mistake tree," an elegant expression of adult transgression and repentance, while Saint's librarian reveals the town's heritage of disappointment, represented by curious-tasting lozenges ("the sweet and the sad are all mixed up together"). Opal walks her own melancholy avenue when she insists that her still broken-hearted father tell her ten things about her long-lost mother. There's a danger of sugar shock here, but the film is so amiable and good-hearted that parents won't give a fig.