MOVIES 'Because of Winn-Dixie' flick is a flea-bitten dog

Four-legged actors dominate the touching movie.
Sometimes it's a good thing to say a movie has gone to the dogs.
That's certainly the case with "Because of Winn-Dixie," a film in which canine thespian accomplishments far surpass those of the human co-stars. Oh, most of the bipeds function adequately, but they don't show the range of the four-legged actors.
Inexplicably, the film's press book doesn't list the name of the main dog or his/her stand-ins. Maybe it's because the dogs are French -- they look like mutts, but they're Picardy shepherds -- and with the current ridiculous U.S. anti-French sentiment the studio figured the less said the better.
Or perhaps it's just because the filmmakers want the public to think of the dog as Winn-Dixie, its name in the film. With potential for a doggie trademark, like Lassie or Benji, you don't want to confuse the masses.
A lonely child
Based on the popular children's book by Kate DiCamillo, "Because of Winn-Dixie" is about a 10-year-old named Opal Buloni (AnnaSophia Robb) who has recently moved to the small town of Naomi, Fla. Opal, desperate for a friend, talks her minister father, called Preacher (Jeff Daniels), into letting her keep a large stray dog she rescued during a visit to the grocery store and whom she appropriately named Winn-Dixie.
Winn-Dixie brings joy to Opal's life and helps the girl make friends with such eccentric townspeople as librarian Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), recluse Gloria Dump (Cicely Tyson) and loner pet-store clerk Otis (Dave Matthews). The dog also helps Opal and her father bridge the distance created over the years since Opal's mother left them.
Directed by Wayne Wang ("The Joy Luck Club") from a script by Joan Singleton, "Because of Winn-Dixie" is a sweet film that doesn't quite conjure the magic to which it aspires. There isn't enough contrast or suspense to make the movie a great drama, but it's a pleasant slice of life marred only occasionally by stilted slapstick.
Few good performances
Newcomer Robb is delightful and maintains a natural quality throughout her performance. But aside from precious Elle Fanning, who seems to share older sister Dakota's gift, the supporting child actors, including Courtney Jines, Nick Price and Luke Benward, go through some awkward phases.
Tyson is the standout in the adult half of the cast. She delivers a message about human weakness that's worth more than a month of sermons. Musician Matthews, who previously appeared in the direct-to-video remake of "Where the Red Fern Grows," shows acting promise as the reticent Otis, plus he provides some pleasant musical accompaniment.
But winsome Winn-Dixie makes the movie. Whether he's cavorting, listening, nudging or hunting, he always hits his mark.

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