Dave's latest dog: Lots of saccharine at this grocery

A spoonful of sugar helps the saccharine (or Splenda, if you prefer) go down in Because of Winn-Dixie, a movie guaranteed to rot your teeth.

You should ignore my cynicism if you've been waiting for a picture that you can take the whole family to about a cute little girl and a cute medium-sized dog.

As an extra added attraction there's bandster Dave Matthews following up his acting debut in the direct-to-video Where the Red Fern Grows. He hums and strums and even sings a little, and he doesn't keep nodding like a bobble-head to show he's awake, the way he did in Red Fern.

India Opal Buloni (AnnaSophia Robb) has just moved to Naomi, Florida, with her father, "The Preacher" (Jeff Daniels). Naomi's a small town full of lonely people. How lonely are they? Eleanor Rigby could win Miss Congeniality there.

The Preacher opens the Open Arms Baptist Church in the former Pick-It-Quick Food Mart. Opal, as his daughter would be known to her friends (if she had any), lays claims to a dog that runs amok in the supermarket and names it after the store: Winn-Dixie. (A better dog's name than Pick-It-Quick.) She brings him home and persuades her father to let her keep him until they can find him another home.

This doesn't sit well with the owner of the trailer park where they're living rent-free (a tax write-off: charitable contribution). Mr. Alfred waived his "No children or dogs allowed" policy for 10-year-old Opal, but he won't for Winn-Dixie. "You want a home or a dog?" he asks the Preacher.

The dog gives Opal the impetus to make friends with everyone: Franny (Eva Marie Saint), the librarian who never married ("I didn't have the need"); Gloria (Cicely Tyson), the blind recluse who's rumored to be a witch; and Otis (Matthews), the pet store clerk who lets the animals out of their cages and sings to them.

"It's no good bein' locked up," he tells Opal. Gee, you don't think his character knows from experience, do you? You'll find out soon enough.

It takes a little longer, but Opal also makes friends with some kids: stuck-up Amanda, young Sweetie Pie, and the surly Dewberry boys. "Just about everything good that happened that summer," she tells us, "happened because of Winn-Dixie."

Periodically Winn-Dixie goes on a rampage and tears up the trailer or interrupts a church service. No one seems to mind. They're as grateful for the comic relief as we are. It's especially welcome after a long series of scenes in which everybody tells the sad stories of their lives.

That includes the Preacher, who finally gives Opal some details about why her mother walked out on them seven years before.

AnnaSophia Robb is the same age as Dakota Fanning, whose little sister Elle plays Sweetie Pie, but while Dakota really inhabits her characters, AnnaSophia does everything she's supposed to do without making any of it believable. Cute, but not believable. Like the dog that plays Winn-Dixie, she's so perfect she seems more animatronic than alive.

The adults, all of whom have supporting roles, perform well enough. Wayne Wang directs them too broadly sometimes, on the theory that young viewers can't appreciate subtlety. He should have been more concerned about the long, talky, often preachy segments, which are a chore for anyone to sit through unless they're really enchanted with the whole thing.

The group I saw the film with was evenly divided. Of two women, each the mother of two boys, one liked it and one didn't. Two pre-adolescent brothers split the same way. As for me, I got through it by fantasizing about a cage match between Winn-Dixie and Benji.