The Harry Potter phenomenon has aroused in publishers and studio heads alike a sudden new appreciation for our children's needs. These people understand that no consumer is more motivated than a kid in the heat of a craze, so every last one of them is struggling to come up with the next Harry, or the next Frodo. For the moment, the people at Walt Disney Pictures are betting on Stanley Yelnats IV.
In case you've never heard of Louis Sachar's award-winning novel Holes -- and if you're over 12, there's a good chance you haven't -- young Stanley is the intrepid hero of Sachar's story: an unlucky boy who gets shipped off to a peculiar camp in the middle of a scalding Texas desert, for a petty theft he didn't commit. There he learns all kinds of useful things about getting along with his fellow "campers," finding strength within himself and surviving.
In book and movie, he must also contend with an army of yellow-spotted lizards (a poisonous figment of the author's imagination) and the mysterious obsessions of Camp Green Lake's warden, who combines the ill temper of Cinderella's stepmother with the tyranny of Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke. Her marching orders? Every day, each camper must dig a five-by-five hole in the sand "to build character." We suspect there's another reason.
If this already sounds a bit complicated for kids' stuff, wait till you get a load of the movie's subplots and the tangled time frames. Stanley (appealing newcomer Shia LaBeouf) is said to be in the grip of a family curse originating in 18th-century Latvia, so there are flashbacks to 18th-century Latvia. The Stetson-wearing, white Chrysler-driving warden (if you can believe it, Sigourney Weaver) is under another kind of curse, so we also get flashbacks to the Old West, where a pretty schoolmarm (Patricia Arquette) morphs into a legendary train robber and killer named Kissin' Kate Barlow. Meanwhile, we also glimpse Stanley Yelnats's hangdog family. Just for a start, his father, Stanley III (Henry Winkler), is a failed inventor seeking a cure for foot odor.
Scratch your head if you like, but Sachar must be doing something right. His best-seller has been published in 30 countries, and in 1999 it won the prestigious Newbery Medal for children's fiction.
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For director Andrew Davis, Holes represents a major change of pace. His past credits are big-budget action thrillers like The Fugitive, Under Siege and Collateral Damage, so it's a bit strange to find him in charge of an inspirational Disney fantasy about little boys locked up in a preteen prison camp. But give Davis credit for versatility. He moves the movie along smartly and, with help from Sachar's screenplay, deftly executes the dual mission that's driven kiddie lit since the 19th century. First, Holes amuses its young viewers with preadolescent comedy, youthful bonhomie, the notion of buried treasure and a touch of fable. But it also means to scare them a little while providing crucial life lessons. Here, they include protecting the weak, rejecting greed and demanding social justice, standing up for yourself and building self-esteem. In other words, have fun, guys, but don't forget to eat your peas.
The multi-ethnic mini-inmates at Camp Green Lake, which is not green and has no lake, exuberantly display all the traits you find in kids, and they have seventh grade-friendly nicknames like Zero (Khleo Thomas), Armpit (Byron Cotton) , Zig-Zag (Max Kasch) and Caveman (Stanley's hard-won handle). There's plenty of bickering among them, but in the end they unite against oppression. The kids' targets are Weaver's warden and a scary straw boss called Mr. Sir, played in shambling, high-spirited fashion by the estimable Jon Voight.
New boys aside, this is a surprisingly star-studded cast. Did somebody put a spell on these people, or does Disney have dirty pictures of them? In any event, the actors playing the rather unsavory grown-ups in Holes provide some authentic box-office power. The filmmakers also have worked in some sly jokes for movie-buff parents. For one thing, the bleak landscapes look exactly like a Sergio Leone spaghetti western, and the obvious Cool Hand Luke references are augmented by playful little bows to everything from The Last Picture Show to the macho excesses of Sam Peckinpah. That tough old bastard would have to love the line "Bring me the file of Hector Zeroni."
I digress. Holes is a nicely made movie for kids, as entertaining as it is thought-provoking and -- thanks to director Davis -- a bit harder-edged than the usual Disney fare.