Grade: C

Here’s a movie that’s constructed to make anyone who might say the most slightly negative thing about it seem like an obvious meanie. “Because of Winn-Dixie” is a sweet, uplifting girl-and-her-dog fable that celebrates family, friendship and community. Its stars are an angelic pre-teen tomboyish blonde (AnnaSophia Robb) and a scruffy pooch that actually smiles knowingly into the camera lens at climactic moments. Surrounding them aren’t just a bunch of additional animals–ducks, goats, parrots and other assorted critters that get a few comic scenes themselves–but also such likable adults as Jeff Daniels as the kid’s benign preacher-father and singer Dave Matthews as a shy pet-shop clerk, as well as venerable veterans Cicely Tyson (as a bedraggled local recluse) and Eva Marie Saint (as the town’s kindly librarian). The whole thing has been assembled so craftily that it seems designed to disarm criticism, or at least make it appear virtually Scroogelike.

But an honest observer nonetheless has to point out that not only is “Winn-Dixie” (the dog gets its unwieldy moniker from the grocery store where little Opal first encounters him) crudely manipulative, but amateurishly executed to boot, and that some of its elements (like the character of a gruffly stupid cop played by the brutally untalented Harland Williams) are positively off-putting. Its makers would like it to become an instant classic of the genre, but at best it’s an amiable but mediocre formula flick more suitable for the home screen than a theatre auditorium.

In the story fashioned from Kate Di Camillo’s Newbery Award-winning young person’s novel by Joan Singleton, young Opal and her dad have just moved into a trailer park in Naomi, a tiny Florida town, where he’s taken a job as head of a congregation that meets in a convenience store. Both are haunted by the absence of Opal’s mother, who abandoned them years before–and about whom Preacher is unable to talk to his daughter. Opal’s a lonely child, needy for affection, and she finds it when, against Preacher’s best judgment, she adopts a dog she first encounters as it tears apart the local Winn-Dixie grocery store, after which she names the pooch. But wouldn’t you know it, Winn-Dixie turns out to be a sort of miracle worker, the catalyst not only for the reconnection of the girl and her father, but also for the development of friendly feelings among a host of the town’s residents, including the other children, Matthew’s pet-store oddball, Tyson’s eccentric old lady, and Saint’s spinsterish grande dame. Even gruff old Mr. Alfred (B.J. Hopper), the trailer park owner who initially demands that the dog be ejected from his property, eventually succumbs to the love-in spirit. Only one person resists the charms of Opal and Winn-Dixie to the very end, it seems–that obtuse cop played in sloppy slapstick style by Williams.

As directed on location in Louisiana by Wayne Wang, whose American films have ranged rather bizarrely from slick, maudlin tearjerkers (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Anywhere But Here”) to gritty independent flicks (“Smoke,” “Blue in the Face”) and provocative sexual exercises (“The Center of the World”), “Because of Winn-Dixie” has a slightly clumsy feel, partially because young Robb, who’s on screen almost constantly throughout the excessive 105-minute running-time, doesn’t appear to have the professional training to carry a feature (natural charm goes only so far), but also because the cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub seems intent on avoiding slickness at all costs and Deirdre Slevin’s editing is slack. Ultimately, though, it’s Wang’s apparently laissez-faire approach, which gives too much leeway to even the less accomplished members of his cast, that makes the picture feel altogether too soft and amorphous–a rickety as many of the town structures. Rachel Portman’s score has a nice flavor, though.

Appropriately, “Because of Winn-Dixie” is rather like most canines–too anxious to please, tugging persistently at the heartstrings in the same way dogs so often beg endlessly for attention and affection (as well as table scraps). It’s generally inoffensive, if rather overlong, but when weighed against the best kid-and-a-dog movies, it’s the runt of the litter.