***/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras C
starring Michelle Trachtenberg, Joan Cusack, Kim Cattrall, Hayden Panettiere
screenplay by Hadley Davis
directed by Tim Fywell
BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE
*½/**** Image N/A Sound B+ Extras C+
starring AnnaSophia Robb, Jeff Daniels, Cicely Tyson, Dave Matthews
screenplay by Joan Singleton, based on the novel by Kate DiCamillo
directed by Wayne Wang
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Sort of a distaff Friday Night Lights, Tim Fywell's Ice Princess transcends its myriad stigmas--not the least of which that babyish title--with a candour I dare say is unsolicited. In fact, the lesson of the picture is that despite that it wasn't strained of conflict by some sensation-fearing executive, no riots broke out, no claims were filed, and no bills were passed. It's not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but neither is it a sustenance-free afternoon at the Ice Capades.
Michelle Trachtenberg stars as Casey Carlyle, a gifted science student (don't laugh--the girl who played Winnie on "The Wonder Years" is a world-renowned physicist) looking for an "unusual but personal" project that will push her application for a special physics scholarship over the top. Her eureka moment arrives while heckling televised figure skating, and her subsequent study in the aerodynamics of the sport inevitably leads her out onto the ice, where she discovers an aptitude for double Axels and triple loops. Because this is such an admittedly flimsy pretext for an underdog intrigue, the unconventional aspects of the story's interpersonal dynamics come as a relief. Casey's nemesis-by-default is über-popular Gen Harwood (the increasingly less tomboyish Hayden Panettiere), the daughter of Tina Harwood (Kim Cattrall), a disgraced Olympian who runs the local rink and has molded Gen into a junior facsimile of herself. When Tina begins lavishing attention on Casey, the movie--seemingly emboldened by its subject matter--attempts a tricky narrative pirouette or two, with Gen, for instance, becoming sororal with rather than contemptuous of Casey. Realizing that in her haste she may have created formidable competition for her own flesh-and-blood, Tina, meanwhile, endeavours to sabotage Casey's burgeoning career.
Tina, in other words, lives up to her Tonya Harding mnemonic, but Ice Princess stands by this trashy shorthand: she rejoins Team Casey only after Gen has packed up her blades for good. In a commensurately sticky move, Casey's mother Joan (Joan Cusack, apparently domesticated for good)--a single-mom with a feminist disdain for women doing anything to aestheticize themselves--spontaneously withdraws her vicarious stock from Casey's promise as a mathlete and reinvests it in her promise as an athlete; the predictably upbeat yet strangely stark denouement finds Tina and Joan conspiring to enslave Casey in a shared dream of her future. Somehow, though, these stage mothers living through their children is more poignant and sympathetic than the dads doing the same in Friday Night Lights--Tina and Joan (a teacher who nevertheless rues the educational opportunities that passed her by) are washed-up with a menopausal finality foreign to men, and their actions seem less about redeeming the family name than about slowing their decline by proxy. Shame that Ice Princess ultimately sees little virtue in being an egghead ("From scholastic... to fantastic!" goes the picture's anti-intellectual tagline), but once a Disney girl movie, always a Disney girl movie, I guess.
On the surface, Wayne Wang's Because of Winn-Dixie looks like it's busting convention, too, since it defies easy description, but it's actually just the latest quasi-magic-realist, two-birds-with-one-stone shrine to non-traditional families and the power of myth (à la Big Fish or Holes), told from the novel point-of-view of a 10-year-old girl. India Opal Buloni (AnnaSophia Robb, whose plasticity Tim Burton used to good effect in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the ludicrously-named daughter of Naomi, Florida's new minister (Jeff Daniels), is an only-child who claims a stray mongrel as her own when it cuts a swath of destruction through the local Winn-Dixie. Put on the spot, she names him after the grocery chain (which nobody in the film ever visits again, though the dog serves as a walking product placement) and convinces the Preacher (how her voiceover self refers to her father) not to kick Winn-Dixie to the curb, then sets about thawing the chilly exteriors of the local would-be shut-ins with her Annie & Sandy act. Invited to the climactic garden party are a socially-stunted Dr. Dolittle type (singer Dave Matthews), librarian spinster Miss Franny (Eva Marie Saint), and a blind hermit named Gloria (Cicely Tyson, who's never really left the set of Sounder), all of whom are too polite or too bored to decline.
Wang has carved out a Soderberghian niche for himself whereby he alternates lowbrow and highbrow fare, sometimes in so literally a yin/yang fashion that he looks schizophrenic. The slapdash Blue in the Face doesn't complement its companion piece, the inoffensively contrived Smoke, as much as it mocks its formalism, while Chinese Box irons out the kinks in the earlier Life Is Cheap...But Toilet Paper Is Expensive to no great end. And it's almost impossible to wrap one's head around the fact that The Center of the World--which punctures Pretty Woman tropes--and Maid in Manhattan--which fortifies them--were made in quick succession by the same director. Alas, Wang is finally chasing his tail in Because of Winn-Dixie, a decidedly imperfect marriage of his commercial and artistic sensibilities that extinguishes the last ember of hope engendered by the lovely Anywhere But Here (a kind of Caucasian counterpart, as it happens, to The Joy Luck Club, Wang's ode to the sacrifices of pre-revolutionary Chinese mothers) that his fiscal motives would never be completely transparent.
Retrograde as opposed to old-fashioned, Because of Winn-Dixie trundles mindlessly across a political minefield. As I haven't read the Newberry Award-winning Kate DiCamillo novel on which the film is based, hard to know whether to accuse this adaptation of fidelity or whitewash--but at the risk of judging a book by its cover, the artist's rendering of India Opal on the trade paperback hints at the latter by virtue of looking nothing like the Aryan ideal that is Robb. Sentenced to three years in jail upon getting into a scuffle with a couple of fuzz trying to stop him from busking in the park, Otis, for starters, would be a far more resonant character if he were portrayed by a black actor (it doesn't count that the icky Matthews suffers from delusions of soul), since there's nothing to justify his martyr complex. The impressionable Opal is getting a civics lesson from an overgrown squeegee kid.
Worse, we're supposed to hiss when the local law enforcement (represented by Harland Williams, essentially reprising his state trooper from Dumb & Dumber) questions the wisdom of a defenseless child hanging out with a temperamental ex-convict in a pet store whose proprietor has gone missing! I think I see what they're trying to do here: by having the cop pigeonhole the creepy but finally gentle Otis (who nevertheless provokes memories of Gordon Jump putting the moves on Shavar Ross with a song comparing Opal to a butterfly, "a caterpillar's dream to fly"), they're condemning the knee-jerk alarm that greets the most harmless expressions of affection or compassion towards children nowadays--an issue begging for the Traffic treatment, perhaps a fictionalization of the excellent, infuriating "Frontline" documentary "The Child Terror". But considering the film's Sugarplum Fairy demographic, destigmatizing strangers through the requisite Home Alone-ization of cops (Williams is subject to all manner of slapstick punishment) is not just irresponsible, but morally reprehensible, too.
Wang has never been much of an iconoclast, and though he has his Pollyanna lapses (as if an aristocratic politician would ever mistake the help for a socialite), it's uncharacteristic of him to be so wilfully ignorant as to consider Gone with the Wind an appropriate book for Opal to read to African-American Gloria. This isn't satire, after all, or a Richard Pryor movie where the inability to see precludes knowing what colour you are. No, what finally sinks Because of Winn-Dixie is apathy, some of it constructive--the closest Wang has ever come to avant-garde, Opal's fragmented memories of her deadbeat mom are wildly out of place but help to salvage a little poetry from the prose--but most of it destructive. Part of the problem is that Americana is dead: if nihilism didn't kill it, irony finished the job. Norman Rockwell is so alien to the popular culture, it's hard to recall a time when his SATURDAY EVENING POST covers were merely corny and passé. Just because you've found an excuse (lice) to give the two young boys in the picture Eisenhower-era brush cuts doesn't mean they can gang up on pretty Opal without introducing an undercurrent of menace. And one absent parent plus one mangy canine no longer an Old Yeller makes.
I've never fully embraced E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, the definitive boy-and-his-dog movie, as I can't help but feel that E.T.'s departure will leave a bigger, more cavernous hole than the one Elliot started with--a troublesome notion that the pompous uplift of John Williams's score does everything in its power to drown out. Contemporary loneliness isn't romantic enough to believe that the happiness these pets instantly bring their adoptive owners will have any kind of half-life: Elliot is the child of divorce and Opal the product of a misbegotten union between a pious man and a secular woman, both of which are unpleasantly modern relative to the cattle drive that whisks the dad away from his family in Old Yeller. Anthropomorphizing the dog in a pointless fashion, Winn-Dixie's ability to smile (through the aid of CGI) betrays not a sense of mischief--his shit-eating grins tend to punctuate loud belches and acts of property destruction--but a psychotic streak. Grossly overestimating his innocuousness, then, Winn-Dixie is the perfect emblem for neo-dogsploitation; and in his passive-aggressive witlessness, he's unfortunately a pretty serviceable avatar for Wayne Wang circa 2005.
Disney presents Ice Princess on DVD in competing widescreen and fullscreen editions. The 1.85:1, 16x9-enhanced image of the former is immune to the studio's recent habit of overzealously applying edge-enhancement; the worst I can say for the transfer is that flesh tones lean towards an unnatural pink. (Not consistently, mind you.) Tame but qualitatively on a par, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio does a nice job of replicating the ambience of a skating rink and importing pop songs into a discrete environment--sometimes simultaneously, as in the number set to Björk's "It's Oh So Quiet." But for a hint of that faux-big band number's sublimity in Caleigh Peters's "Reach" or Aly & A.J.'s "No One," the attendant videos for which comprise a "Music & More" section within the bonus materials. Also on board are five deleted scenes (totalling seven minutes), including an elided prologue and a blessedly-cut passage in which Tina implicitly apologizes to Casey for her subterfuge. Is it possible that test screenings yielded a film of greater integrity for a change? Rounding out the disc: a giggly film-length commentary laden with unpremeditated double-entendres that reunites cast members Trachtenberg, Panettiere, Trevor Blumas, and Kirsten Olson; pre-menu trailers for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Valiant, My Scene Goes Hollywood: The Movie, and Halloweentown Movies; and additional, menu-based previews of The Muppets Wizard of Oz, Aliens of the Deep, ESPN Sports Figures, and RADIODisney.
As for Fox's Because of Winn-Dixie platter, it's a DVD-10 containing 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and flipside unmatted transfers. Fox announces their distrust of critics with this title by splaying "Property of 20th Century Fox Publicity Department" in huge letters across the screen for the duration of the film on both sides of the disc (the first time a major studio has done so since DreamWorks sent out advanced copies of the Gladiator Signature Selection in 2000--which is why you never saw a review of it at FILM FREAK CENTRAL), in turn prohibiting an ethical assessment of the image. (Ironically, the disc still opens with that stupid anti-piracy PSA. Paranoid much?) While the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is serviceable, a couple of thunderstorm sequences deliver the goods. Supplement-wise, find on side A, the fullscreen side, a 4-minute EPK, a "music soundtrack promo" (as opposed to what, a room tone soundtrack promo?), and 12 minutes of optional commentary over five select scenes from the slightly affected Robb, who pronounces her name "AwnaSophia." Side B incorporates a 2-minute gag reel (I don't know what's more excruciating: the "America's Funniest Home Videos"-style animal high jinks or Harland Williams's tossing out one-liners that go down like lead balloons), a 4-minute featurette on canine thespians Lyco and Scott, and a curiously irreverent feature-length commentary pairing actor Jeff Daniels with producer Trevor Albert. An "Inside Look" teaser for Ice Age 2 caps things off. Originally published: August 13, 2005.