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  Because of Winn Dixie Follow the Smiling Dog
Year: 2005
Director: Wayne Wang
Stars: AnnaSophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Dave Matthews, Eva Marie Saint, Courtney Jines, Nick Price, Luke Benward, Elle Fanning, Harland Thomas
Genre: Comedy, DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: India Opal Buloni (AnnaSophia Robb) is a lonely ten year old girl who moves to a trailer park in the small town of Naomi, Florida with her dad Preacher (Jeff Daniels). The townsfolk seem strange and hostile to her and she begs God to send her a friend. While in the Winn Dixie supermarket, Opal encounters a scruffy dog causing chaos and claims the mutt is hers to prevent it being sent to the pound. She names him Winn Dixie, because it’s the first name she thinks of. He inspires Opal to challenge Preacher to name ten things about her mother, who abandoned them years before. The smiling dog leads Opal to make new friends and she gradually learns everyone in town has a secret sorrow. Miss Franny Block (Eva Marie Saint) is the town librarian with a large family reputation to uphold; Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson) is blind and a recovering alcoholic feared as a witch by neighbourhood kids; Otis (Dave Matthews) is a shy ex-con and pet store clerk with a musical talent that can charm animals; seemingly snooty Amanda Wilkinson (Courtney Jines) mourns the death of her brother; thumbsucker Sweetie Pie Thomas (Elle Fanning) is yearning for a friend. Opal gains wisdom and different outlooks on life through relationships with adults and peers, and grows emotionally. She and Gloria host a party for all her friends to meet, but a thunderstorm breaks out and scares Winn Dixie away…

A cut above most kid and their dog movies, Because of Winn Dixie is a total charmer. Acclaimed filmmaker Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club (1993)) brings an indie sensibility to this children’s film, focusing on character and quirky details sprinkled throughout Kate DiCamillo’s narrative. These include Litmus Lozenges, a magical candy Opal uses to discover people’s personal sadness; pixellated fantastical asides; and the titular, lovable mutt who does have a genuinely beguiling smile (albeit enhanced with a little CG). Plot-wise it might seem your standard girl finds dog, girl loses dog story, but it’s a film about people, community and looking beneath surface appearances to find the frailties that bind folk together. “Sometimes it seems as if everybody in the world is lonely”, remarks Opal, a statement that underlines the film’s winning mix of melancholy and feel good spirit. There are moving moments, including Jeff Daniels breaking down as he remembers Opal’s mom and Cicely Tyson recalling her days as a drunk, and a sublime montage set to Norah Jones’ song “Sunrise”.

Wang also displays a fine sense of landscape, with bleached visuals gradually melting into a warmer colour palette as Opal warms to the locals. The film benefits from several stellar performances, including amazing AnnaSophia Robb exuding star quality in her film debut, before she found fame in the excellent Bridge to Terabithia (2007). Jeff Daniels lends dramatic weight and it’s nice to see veterans Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint given substantial roles. Newcomers manage to steal a few scenes, including Courtney Jines (from Spy Kids 3-D (2003)), Nick Price and Luke Benward as shaven-headed troublemakers the Dewberry Boys, and little Elle Fanning - Dakota’s sister - as Sweetie Pie Thomas, who tends to pop out of nowhere with a sudden remark (“That man’s magic. He’s a magic man.”). Rock star Dave Matthews (of the Dave Matthews Band) delivers a surprisingly moving performance as the soulful Otis, who confides in the lonely little girl and charms a store full of animals with his lyrical voice. Watch for when Winn Dixie leads the animals to attack a bullying cop (Harland Thomas). Such broad comic set-pieces risk reducing the film to the level of Beethoven (1992), but don’t outstay their welcome. Above all this remains a gentle fable about pain, sorrow and healing.
Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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