The Harry Potter phenomenon -- on the page, in the movies, at the bank -- 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 the parent of 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 twelve, there's a good chance you haven't -- young Stanley is the intrepid hero, an unlucky boy who gets shipped off to a very peculiar camp in the middle of a scalding Texas desert for a petty theft he didn't commit. There he learns learn 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 Paul Newman's tormentor in Cool Hand Luke. Her marching orders? Each 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 tangled time frames. Stanley (Disney Channel mainstay Shia LaBeouf) is said to be in the grip of a family curse originating in eighteenth-century Latvia, so there are flashbacks to eighteenth-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), disillusioned by an act of violence, morphs into a legendary train robber and killer named Kissin' Kate Barlow. Meanwhile, we glimpse Stanley's hangdog family: Just for a start, his father, Stanley III (Henry Winkler -- da Fonz), is a failed inventor seeking a cure for foot odor.
Scratch your head if you like, but Sachar must be doing something right. His bestseller has been published in thirty countries, and in 1999 it won the prestigious Newbery Medal for children's fiction.
For director Andrew Davis, Holes represents a major change of pace. His past credits are muscle-flexing, 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 pre-teen prison camp -- with side trips to old Latvia. 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 nineteenth century and kiddie flicks since the twentieth. First, Holes amuses its young viewers with pre-adolescent comedy, youthful bonhomie, the notion of buried treasure and a touch of fable. But it also means to scare them a little (hey, they're in the joint) while providing crucial life lessons. Here they include protecting the weak, rejecting greed, 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: Zero (Khleo Thomas), Armpit (Byron Cotton), ZigZag (Max Kasch) and Caveman (that's Stanley's hard-won new handle). There's plenty of bickering among these assorted scaredy-cats, slobs and bullies, but in the end they unite against oppression -- just like Paul Newman and George Kennedy did on the chain gang. The kids' targets are Weaver's warden and a clumsy but scary strawboss called Mr. Sir, played in great, shambling, high-spirited fashion by the estimable Jon Voight.
New boys aside, in fact, 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 grownups in Holes provide some authentic box-office power. The filmmakers have also worked in some sly jokes for any movie-buff parents who happen to accompany their youngsters to the multiplex. For one thing, the bleak, dusty, overheated 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 John Ford canon to The Last Picture Show to the macho excesses of Sam Peckinpah. That tough old bastard would have had 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. Pack the SUV full of twelve-year-olds, and don't forget to bring along a couple of Ben Franklins for the concession stand.
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