Because of Winn-Dixie

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Geez oh Pete, it’s an epidemic. I just got done harping on mediocre “family films” in my reviews of “Uncle Nino” and “Her Majesty,” and now here’s “Because of Winn-Dixie,” barging into theaters and demanding that families view it. Well, if I had a family in the traditional sense — wife, kids, that sort of thing — I wouldn’t take them. No sir! I’m not even going to take the family I do have, which consists of me and my TiVo receiver.

I’m putting my foot down in regards to the mediocre family films. “Because of Winn-Dixie” fits the profile to a T: harmless, fluffy, nice message, cute dog, everyone hugs a lot at the end, and there’s no cussin’ or love-makin’. And I’m tired of it. Not of all those elements, because there are certainly fine films that use them. What I’m tired of is movies that hit all those buttons without any charm, wit or imagination.

Meet Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), a 10-year-old girl whose mother walked out on her when she was 3, leaving her in the kind hands of her father (Jeff Daniels), a non-denominational Christian preacher. The two have just moved to the tiny town of Naomi, Fla., where Preacher (that’s all the movie ever calls him) has a small flock of church-goers waiting for him.

Opal can’t remember her mother, and Preacher avoids talking about her. Opal is lonely. In answer to her prayers, she finds a homeless dog one day while picking up a few items at the local Winn-Dixie, and she adopts him as her own. Preacher is against it because the cat-loving landlord at their trailer park doesn’t allow pets, but even the stern Preacher cannot resist the wiles of the adorable dog, whom Opal names Winn-Dixie.

For some reason, this dog can smile. It happens a few times in the movie, and someone always says, “Is that dog smiling?” It’s a little creepy, frankly.

Anyway, Opal makes some friends in the town, including rock star Dave Matthews as an employee at a pet store (who coincidentally as luck would have it happens to play the guitar!!!!!!!). There’s also Cicely Tyson as a mildly crazy old blind woman who lives alone and who all the kids think is a witch. (She isn’t.) And there’s Eva Marie Saint as the town librarian who recalls the time a bear made off with a copy of “War and Peace.” Opal wants all these people to be friends with each other, so she and Winn-Dixie (I guess the dog is involved) throw a part at Cicely Tyson’s house and everyone is invited. The end.

This movie ain’t hurtin’ no one, and that AnnaSophia Robb and whatever dog plays Winn-Dixie sure are chipper. Directed by Wayne Wang (“Maid in Manhattan,” “Anywhere but Here”) and adapted by Joan Singleton from Kate DiCamillo’s novel, the movie actually has affable performances all around. The decades of experience between Cicely Tyson and Eva Marie Saint really do make a difference; they class up the joint, and they make average material feel a little better. Jeff Daniels, too, is often unfairly overlooked when we count off the solid, reliable actors of our day.

But none of that changes the fact that nothing really HAPPENS in this movie. It’s nothing more than a series of scenes, first cute, then sentimental, then funny, and then the cycle repeats itself. I find it hard to actually dislike it, but I find it hard to recommend it, either.

C+ (1 hr, 46 min.; PG, mild thematic elements.)

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