Because of Winn-Dixie

As new residents of a small southern town, Opal (AnnaSophia Robb) and her minister father (Jeff Daniels) are having trouble fitting in with the local folk. Lonely and bored, Opal finds a pal in Winn-Dixie, a dog with a curious smile she finds harassing the local grocery store. Opal and Winn-Dixie set off on many adventures around town, meeting and understanding a neighbor at each stop, making her strange surroundings all the more friendlier.

“Because of Winn-Dixie” exists in that ideal, “To Kill a Mockingbird” view of the south, where twilight is a day-long affair, every small act is a metaphor for a larger truth, and every neighbor has his or her own hidden quirk just waiting for somebody to notice. Originally a highly lauded book by Kate DiCamillo, “Winn-Dixie” has founds its way into the most unlikely of hands: filmmaker Wayne Wang.

Wang, the Hong Kong-born director of “The Joy Luck Club,” the sexual obsession odyssey “The Center of the World,” and one of the few passable Jennifer Lopez flicks, “Maid in Manhattan,” does not immediately spring to mind to make a laid back family film centered around a dog and southern whimsy. However, Wang’s touch can be felt all over the production, with its rich attention to character idiosyncrasies and thick southern mood. “Winn-Dixie” is a production that means well, but it never comes together like I can assume the book did. Much like other literary adaptations, character arcs in the film have been severely compromised to get this tale down to a manageable size, often deleting their intentions. What’s left are frustrating little snippets of cliched southern ham characters (all with hearts of gold) and moments, never arranged by Wang into a suitable feature. “Winn-Dixie” is simply an episodic film, and not a particularly inviting one at that.

It’s touchy to criticize a child’s performance, but a major reason “Winn-Dixie” tends to be grating is star AnnaSophia Robb’s performance. The real blame lies with Wang, who bafflingly never instructs Robb to pull back from her penchant for complete hysteria and incessant use of the “aw, shucks” facial configuration. Wang’s direction of Robb to always go over-the-top (especially in her reaction shots) ruin the more genuine emotional moments that are scattered about the film, and encourages her co-stars to attempt to top her. Unexpectedly, it’s acting novice (and full-time musician) Dave Matthews who gives the material its most tender reading. As a gruff, slightly dim drifter who befriends Opal, Matthews has his moments with a guitar (of course), but many more without, giving a quirky, funny, but resonate performance. If only the film had more of him.

For mandatory, dreadfully labored third act dramatics, “Because of Winn-Dixie” hastily begins to gather all the dangling loose ends of the story and tie them together with a happy, wet dog kiss. It’s a good smokescreen, but not enough to cover this tedious experience.

Rating: D+