Millions who love the book on which Because of Winn-Dixie is based already know that cause and effect begins with an orphaned dog named after a convenience store and adopted by a lonely girl. Kate DiCamillo's award-winning, kid-size 2000 novel is about sorrow, companionship, and spunk, with a kick of Southern comfort: The residents of fictional Naomi, Fla., where 10-year-old narrator India Opal Buloni has recently moved into a trailer park with her distracted preacher father, are colorful oddball types. Inevitably each also has something useful to teach the motherless newcomer about life. But to Winn-Dixie's great credit, both as a book and as a dandy, dignified movie, there's nothing condescendingly lesson-like in the wisdom India acquires.
Nor is there anything goopy in director Wayne Wang's evocative production (from a screenplay by Joan Singleton) and that's saying something, considering that the central heart-tuggers are a girl whose mama left when she was 3 and a doggy who smiles. It's the rare kid flick that attracts the participation of grandes dames Eva Marie Saint (as the town's librarian) and Cicely Tyson (as Gloria Dump, the memorably named blind gardener), along with Jeff Daniels (as the preacher) and guitar-playing popular musician Dave Matthews in his feature acting debut (as a guitar-playing pet shop custodian). Yet as India, rookie actress AnnaSophia Robb holds her own with spirit not to mention an unfakable chemistry with the fancy Picardy shepherd passing as a mutt in this well-bred charmer.