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'Winn-Dixie': Best in Show

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005; Page WE41

OPAL (AnnaSophia Robb) wants someone to love.

She just rolled into sleepy old Naomi, Fla., with her preacher father (Jeff Daniels) and doesn't know a soul. It's not the life to make a lonely girl jump for joy. She lives in a trailer park with dad. She hasn't seen her mother since she was 3. Dad has to preach in makeshift Sunday gatherings at the local convenience store. And the other kids in town aren't particularly welcoming, including two buzz-headed brothers (Nick Price and Luke Benward) who taunt her all the time.

In Wayne Wang's family-friendly charmer, "Because of Winn-Dixie," Opal's loneliness is turned around when she sees a fuzzball of a dog running amok in the local Winn-Dixie shopping store, causing a catastrophe of spilled food and upended clerks. Realizing instantly that she has found her special companion, she assures the manager she owns the wet-nosed pooch, a Picardy shepherd, and takes it home.

Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) and her dog, Winn-Dixie, charm her neighbors and the audience in "Because of Winn-Dixie." (Suzanne Tenner -- Twentieth Century Fox)

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If you're of a certain age, or you rent from the classics shelves, you've seen those charming old Disney fuzzers of yore, with children falling in love with critters of every shape and size. Wang's movie follows that tradition (the story's based on the popular Kate DiCamillo book of the same name) but transforms it into a homespun celebration of eccentricity. Everyone's got their own funny foibles and independent spirit.

Dad has to promise his grumpy, dog-hating landlord (B.J. Hopper) that he'll look for someone to adopt Winn-Dixie. But no one has counted on Winn-Dixie's ability to win everybody over, even if he can't seem to avoid pulling down clotheslines and running into trouble. He, almost literally, drags Opal into new relationships. Thanks to him, she meets Otis (singer Dave Matthews), a laconic but sweet-natured clerk at the local pet store, who likes to play his guitar for the animals; genial librarian Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint); and an eccentric lady (Cicely Tyson) who lives alone and has a glorious tree in her yard practically gift-wrapped with hanging bottles to scare ghosts away. Even those buzz-haired brothers change their tune.

Wang, who made "Chan Is Missing," "Eat a Bowl of Tea" and "The Joy Luck Club," has a sure touch when it comes to building worlds full of innocent charmers. But his real coup is in the casting. Matthews is a likable presence, a subtly magical drifter who strums catchy tunes and knows how to talk back to a rude parrot. And most importantly, Wang has found the perfect young leading lady. Robb (who will play Violet Beauregarde opposite Johnny Depp in the upcoming "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") is a puckery scamp who suggests a 10-year-old Keira Knightley. She's also remarkably assured; there isn't a false note in her performance. And not only does she take full charge of the movie, she manages to out-charm the Picardy.

BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE (PG, 100 minutes) -- Contains some mature themes, such as alcoholism and mild obscenity. Area theaters.

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