"Because of Winn-Dixie," the adaptation of the popular tweener novel of the same name, recalls another recent adaptation of a similarly beloved book, "Holes." As with that wonderful 2003 family film, which managed to be heartwarming yet tough-minded, this movie never stoops to easy sentiment. Indeed, this is a film that pulls so few punches that, until its final moments, viewers aren't entirely sure whether the title character -- a shaggy, big-eyed lug of a mutt -- even gets to stay in the picture.
With its setting of a broken-down Florida town called Naomi, its plot points of absconded mothers and drowned brothers, and its cast of characters each bearing more than a trace of sadness in their souls, "Because of Winn-Dixie" sounds like kind of a bummer on paper. And, true to Kate DiCamillo's original book, Wayne Wang's movie never flinches from representing the pain and loneliness experienced by a 10-year-old who's new in town -- emotions that will resonate with adults who know grown-ups can feel that way, too.
Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), right, watches as her dog patiently endures the attention of Sweetie Pie Thomas (Elle Fanning) in "Because of Winn-Dixie."
(Suzanne Tenner -- Twentieth Century Fox)
India Opal (newcomer AnnaSophia Robb) has arrived just in time for summer vacation -- a disastrous time for making friends -- with her father, an itinerant priest she calls the Preacher (Jeff Daniels). It's an indication of the distance between them that Opal refers to her father with a definite article; he routinely shuts her out, when he's working on a sermon, for example, or when she wants to know more about her mother, who abandoned the family when Opal was 3.
It's in this friendless and isolated state that Opal meets Winn-Dixie, a scruffy, huggable dog that she names after the southern grocery chain when she finds him running amok among the produce at the chain's local store. "Because of Winn-Dixie" chronicles the summer when Opal and Winn-Dixie cobble together a quirky community of friends, a group that includes Miss Franny, an elderly librarian (Eva Marie Saint), a nearly blind recluse (Cicely Tyson) named Gloria Dump, and Otis, the mysterious manager of the local pet shop.
That last character is played by the rock singer Dave Matthews, who, like the rest of this accomplished cast, delivers an entirely credible performance in a film whose mystical touches could have easily sent it down a goofier, or at least less believable, path. One of the movie's most touching scenes, wherein Otis quietly sings to his menagerie while they stand in rapt attention, is just one example of a moment that, while fantastical, is executed with remarkable subtlety and understatement. (Matthews's music, and a soundtrack that includes cuts from Norah Jones and Emmylou Harris, reinforces the laid-back vibe of a film that never strains for its atmosphere of rootsy southernness.)
Like the rest of "Because of Winn-Dixie," the sweetness of the pet shop serenade scene is shot through with sorrow, a theme that is brought to the foreground when Opal is given a canister of the candies that were once produced in the town. As she hands them out to her father and her friends, each tastes the particular moments of grief that have marked his or her life. The movie is marked by long passages in which characters tell their tales, sequences that, rather than coming off as too talky, testify to the mesmerizing power of pure storytelling.
If this all sounds a bit heavy for a family film, the youngsters at a recent screening didn't seem bothered, and certainly fans of DiCamillo's book should be pleased with how Wang has faithfully preserved the novel's clear-eyed depiction of both pain and joy. That fealty extends even to the movie's climactic scene, in which a well-earned celebration is marred by a rainstorm and the disappearance of the dog everyone has come to adore.
"Because of Winn-Dixie" is that rare youngsters' movie in which the happy ending isn't handed to the protagonist -- or viewers -- as a predictable matter of course. Instead, it's hard-won, making it that much more triumphant when it finally comes.
Because of Winn-Dixie (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mature themes and brief mild profanity.