Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Because of Winn-Dixie (2005) **

Directed by Wayne Wang; written by Joan Singleton, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo; photography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub; editing, Deirdre Slevin; music, Rachel Portman; production designer, Donald Graham Burt; produced by Trevor Albert and Joan Singleton; a Century Fox and Walden Media release. 97 minutes. PG. CAST: Anna Sophia Robb (Opal), Jeff Daniels (Preacher), Cicely Tyson (Gloria), Dave Matthews (Otis), Eva Marie Saint (Miss Franny) and Courtney Jines (Amanda Wilkinson).

I have not read the source novel, aimed at kids, and apparently very popular. The movie seems to be quite successful too. Its outline is as follows.

In the small town of Naomi, Florida, come preacher Daniels (that always simpatico performer) and his 10 year –or so --daughter Opal (Miss Robb in her first major movie.) Dad and child are most likeable. They live in a trailer. There is no wife/mom around. As the film unfurls we learn, from glowing descriptions by Dad that mom was great in every way, but, quote “she hated being married to a preacher.” So, some years ago, when Opal was about three, Mom left her husband and their child. (You might as well know that she won’t reappear in the movie.)

Mr. Daniels sends Opal to a Winn-Dixie supermarket, which turns out to be in a super-mess as the employees chase a stray dog that’s creating havoc in aisle after aisle. When the culprit is finally apprehended, to avoid his getting collected by the pound, Opal claims he belongs to her, and when asked his name comes up with Winn-Dixie. It’s all quite irresistible.

What ensues goes by the numbers in pictures about kids and animals. The old man who runs the trailer park objects to the dog. But you know he will relent eventually. The novelty here is that to buy a collar for her quadruped friend, Opal tries to (and succeeds) to get a job in a local pet shop. The place is a mess, the collection of beasties oddly rich –and often funny—the person in charge is Otis (Dave Matthews) an ex-con who does nothing but strum his guitar and look stoned. The owner of the store is away, never seen and never explained.

The movie was shot in two small towns in Louisiana. There’s really not a lot of local color in the film. The location is a place in decline – mostly because its main (probably its only) industry, the Littmus Lozenge Factory, has closed down. In fact, the local church seems to be non-existent too, so that Preacher Daniels has to use another abandoned store for the parishioners. That location, by the way, is where several comic elements show up and, I daresay, the only ones in the movie.

Oddly, very little of Naomi is seen – just a sprinkling of locations is not enough to give us any sort of feeling for that small town and its decline. The very existence of the mega-grocery Winn-Dixie may make you wonder.

What colorfulness there is comes from a ridiculous cop (a gratuitous character) and from Opal’s mature acquaintances, namely a librarian (Eva Marie Saint) who seems to have no visitors and a colorful black lady (Cicely Tyson) who is almost totally blind. Welcome as the two actresses are, their physical appearance is distressing when you think of them in their prime – or even later. Ms. Tyson is unrecognizable. Miss Saint is identifiable but when you think of her in “On the Waterfront” (1954) and especially in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest” (1959) as the sexy, provocative, mysterious charmer and teaser of Cary Grant it is heartbreaking. Note, however, that those two ladies and the very young Miss Robb bring a lot of talent to their performances.

So does the dog. While someone is bound to speak of him and Jeff Daniels as “Mutt and Jeff,” “Winn-Dixie” is no mutt but a thoroughbred. Having spent more time tracking the dog than watching several movies, I can now say that this beastie is a sheepherding Berger Picard, a very old breed from Northern France, rare and valuable. It was recognized by the United Kennel Club on January 1, 1994. And somewhere I read that this particular dog was flown especially from France to make his debut in the Americas.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel