Great children's literature often depends on a delicate balance between whimsy and pathos, qualities that can shine on the page and then get crushed by all but the most superb adaptations. Wayne Wang's Because Of Winn-Dixie, the film version of Kate DiCamillo's Newberry-winning novel, isn't one of those superb adaptations, but it's not one of the crushing ones, either. Set in the small town of Naomi, Florida, it seems at first to consist primarily of Southern quirks on loan from other movies. Poke it, and it might ooze molasses. It also stars newcomer Annasophia Robb—a young performer from the Jake Lloyd school of big-eyed, loud-voiced child acting—as its Pollyanna-meets-Scout-from-To Kill A Mockingbird heroine, and it relies heavily on the antics of Winn-Dixie, a dog that occasionally breaks into a CGI-enhanced smile.
Viewers with a high tolerance for cornbread, most of whom won't be tall enough to see over the ticket counter, might end up entertained, however. As in DiCamillo's story, Winn-Dixie's charm goes a long way. Named for the grocery store in which Robb finds the dog running amok, Winn-Dixie slowly goes about making Robb's life better. This includes working to repair her relationship with dad Jeff Daniels. A preacher who operates out of one of Naomi's abandoned convenience stores (complete with a buzzer to signal entering parishioners), Daniel carries himself with a fatherly kindness that's cut by sadness whenever he remembers Robb's mother, who abandoned them years before. The dog's outreach program extends beyond the home, too. Over a long summer, he drags Robb into the company of a blind hermit (Cicely Tyson), a distrustful, guitar-strumming pet-shop manager (Dave Matthews, sans band), and an isolated librarian (Eva Marie Saint).
Slowly but surely, Robb's wandering gels into a story about the loneliness of solitude, the disappointments of love and friendship, and the moral that the latter, in spite of their perils, are still better than the alternative. It's strong medicine, but Wang serves it up with a lot of sugar. For grown-ups, Because Of Winn-Dixie probably contains too much of the sweet stuff, but in films as in cuisine, kids' taste buds are less easily sated. Some might even find the leisurely pace a nice break from the rapid-fire approach favored by most kids' entertainment. And with luck, Because Of Winn-Dixie could serve as a gateway film for more sophisticated stuff, or maybe even an impetus to go read a good book once in a while.