It's hard to know what to expect from Wayne Wang. The Hong Kong-raised director has made one gorgeous mood movie (Chinese Box) and two intelligent literary adaptations (Smoke and Anywhere But Here); he was also responsible, in his early days, for the overwrought sobfest The Joy Luck Club. Then, in 2002, he brought us Maid in Manhattan, a featherweight confection that could have been spun into existence by any Hollywood hack. So whither Wang?
"A soulful children's movie" probably wouldn't have been anyone's first guess. But that's what Because of Winn-Dixie, a Southern Gothic based on the best-selling children's novel of the same name, intends to be -- and, for the most part, it is. Wang paints a slow and steady picture of a lonely girl in a sleepy Florida town, befriended by a dog and, through that dog, by several of the town's unique characters. Just as Winn-Dixie the canine draws out the people he meets, opening their hearts, Winn-Dixie the film evokes more than a couple of remarkable performances, including a moving and humble turn by Jeff Daniels. In the end, despite a tendency toward the overcooked and a climactic misstep, the film succeeds.
Ten-year-old Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), the daughter of a preacher (Daniels), leads a lonely life in a town called Naomi. Uprooted from her latest home, where she had friends on the softball team, she passes her early summer days playing pretend ball and riding her bike through the dusty, barren streets. Her mother, it seems, has long since departed, and her father has barred the doors against discussion of that. The kids in town don't show any interest, except to tease, so Opal is on her own -- until Winn-Dixie comes galumphing in.
Winn-Dixie is a dog, a large and shaggy mutt-looking thing (actually a rare and distinguished Picardy shepherd, flown to the set from France), nameless and homeless when he all but destroys the produce section at the town's supermarket. To save the dog from the pound, Opal claims he's hers, christening him with the store's name on the spot. Then she takes him back to the trailer park, where she and her father have thus far passed quiet, strained nights. At first, the preacher won't have any of Winn-Dixie ("This isn't a dog, it's a horse"), but then he strikes a deal: Opal can keep him until she finds him another home.
One of the strong elements to this story is that no adult -- and particularly Opal's father -- is a villain. (There is a fussy policeman, but he's merely a buffoon.) Even as the preacher denies his daughter the things she wants most -- first the dog, later knowledge of her mother -- we can see his tenderness and his struggle. In fact, one of the first scenes is a sympathetic one, in which the preacher jokes with his new congregation in a convenience store (their church) and fails to elicit even a single laugh.
As the summer progresses, Winn-Dixie earns his place in the preacher's heart, and in a lot of other hearts as well. He shows Opal how to make friends and how to draw out the joy and kindness in the formerly sullen, such as quirky pet-store employee Otis (singer Dave Matthews, in a fine performance), elegant librarian Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), and eccentric bottle-collector Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson). Some of these characters skirt stereotype, but the film finds something original in each. Gloria, for instance, has a tree from which she hangs strings of empty bottles. She intends to keep away ghosts -- the ghosts, she says, of all the things she did wrong in her life. It's a beautiful image and, we learn, far from empty.
Where the film falters is not so much in tone as in degree, which tends toward the medicinal. A bit too often, we're fed wholesome sentences whose nutrition is designed to ring in parents' ears -- "Wow, look at all these books!" and "People lost more than their jobs; they lost each other." Adults don't need this kind of spoon-feeding, and neither do children. Happily, Winn-Dixiesucceeds despite it, no doubt because both screenwriter Joan Singleton and director Wang take the time to draw real people and feeling relationships. What develops between Opal and her father could very well warm its way into a few chilly hearts.
There is one final problem, and that is the ending. After a solid and patient story, which takes its time to accrue its weight, the end rushes into a dramatic climax and hasty resolution. The misstep sends the film into chaos, altering its pacing and changing its tone. Worse, the final note is unequivocally joyous, when a more dramatic, bittersweet option was there for the taking. That's a mistake, though one that moviegoers have come to expect. What production aimed at children and produced by Hollywood ever has the bravery to show something more honest -- and emotionally challenging -- than pat?