Every dog has his day

A little dog with a big heart knits a divided town together in “Because of Winn-Dixie”

Claire Joseph

Dave Matthews must think he needs to increase his popularity with children.

And with pet store animals.

You’d think that after creating numerous popular albums, habitually selling out shows at major venues and becoming an idol to aspiring musicians and enthusiastic fans, Matthews wouldn’t need to play a mentally impaired guitar player who’s known as the “magic man” because his guitar playing calms the animals in a not-so-good children’s film.

But, that’s what Matthews did.

He plays Otis, a lonely, introverted drifter who runs the local pet shop, in director Wayne Wang’s new film “Because of Winn-Dixie.”

Based on Minneapolis author Kate DiCamillo’s children’s novel of the same name, Wang’s film tries to recreate the popularity of the story by appealing to the dog-loving audience that makes movies such as “My Dog Skip” into hits.

The film tells the story of Opal (AnnaSophia Robb), a 10-year-old girl wise beyond her years. She and her father (Jeff Daniels), a preacher, move to a small town in Florida, and Opal finds herself without any friends.

Luckily, an ordinary trip to the grocery store turns extraordinary when she finds a stray dog, which she names Winn-Dixie, after the supermarket chain.

With the help of Winn-Dixie, a pooch that smiles at everyone he meets, Opal finds the confidence and ability to connect with various townspeople.

The film’s major flaw is the cloyingly optimistic way Opal’s friendship with Otis is treated.

For example, Otis allows Opal to work with him at the pet store in exchange for a leash she wants for Winn-Dixie. Strangely, her father never wonders where she goes every day. And when Opal and the rest of the town find out Otis was once imprisoned, the film roots for Opal to accept Otis for who he is and to steadfastly cling to their friendship.

In another film, say “Cape Fear” or “Mary Poppins,” such a relationship would excite a little bit of comment, at least.

Later, in a final attempt to get everyone together and build a sense of community, Opal and her unorthodox group of friends circle around guitar-playing Otis and the preacher to sing hymns. The children, who until recently didn’t like one another, and the adults, who didn’t know one another, are drawn together through their choral singing.

This idea of bringing people together through religion seems forced and, for a film directed toward children, a little sneaky.