Rated PG, 117 min. Directed by Andrew Davis. Starring Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Henry Winkler, Patricia Arquette, Dulé Hill, Siobhan Fallon Hogan.
One way to make sure those Hollywood types don’t foul up the movie based on your book is to write the screenplay yourself, which is exactly what Austin author Louis Sachar did with the film adaptation of his much-loved, award-winning kids’ book Holes. The film is an almost literal translation of the book, which will make fans happy, but newcomers may be a little befuddled, due to the delightfully twisty nature of the story. Both film and book juggle three different storylines in three different eras, all related to the "no good, dirty-rotten, pig-stealing great-great-grandfather" of one Stanley Yelnats IV (LaBeouf). At the film’s beginning, young Stanley is shipped off to Camp Green Lake, a juvenile-delinquent camp for boys at which inmates must dig a 5 foot by 5 foot hole every day in the hot Texas sun (no green, no lake at Camp Green Lake) under the rabidly watchful eyes of the Warden (Weaver) and sunflower-spittin’ Mr. Sir (Voight, in a gleefully over-the-top performance). The Warden and Mr. Sir claim the hole-digging is character-building, but the boys know they’re really looking for buried treasure. Stanley landed at Camp Green Lake via a wrongful conviction for stealing a pair of shoes, but that fits in with the bad luck of all the Yelnats men, the result of a curse put on that no good great-great-grandfather, Elya Yelnats, by a Latvian fortuneteller named Madame Zeroni (played by Eartha Kitt, whose witchy, kitschy ways should be tailor-made for this part, but aren’t capitalized upon). The curse follows Elya to America, and on down the generations; the first Stanley Yelnats’ small fortune is stolen by an infamous outlaw, Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Arquette); Stanley’s dad (Winkler) is a tireless inventor (of nothing, just yet, but that breakthrough’s going to come any day now), and on down to Stanley IV, now doing time on a kiddie chain gang with hooligans bearing names like Armpit, Squid, X-Ray, Magnet, and Zero (Thomas). In the book, these many threads weave together seamlessly, each dropping hints that will figure into another generation’s story (and how all the pieces fit together is a doozy). The film, alas, has a tougher time; the shifts in focus are often jarring. The stories told in the past – including a lengthy subplot involving Kissin’ Kate, before she turned outlaw, and Sam (Hill), a black sweet-onion merchant she falls in love with, to the uproar of their 19th-century vehemently white neighbors-turned-terrifying lynch mob – are handled with a distant, sepiaed reverence; it’s the scenes set in the present, at Camp Green Lake, that best capture the book’s cheeky charm. Behind a backdrop of dusty, barren Sahara-ness (beautifully shot by Stephen St. John), the gang works day in and day out, sweating, conniving, goofing around, and, yes, even character building. The boys are all wonderfully cast, although purists may be dismayed to see Stanley IV is no longer the fat lonely boy he was in the book. The decision (to go with the beanpole skinny, enormously likeable LaBeouf) was made for practical reasons, but as a result, Stanley’s character arc – from fat and lonely to fit and with friends – is mostly lost. The emphasis now is on reversing his family’s fate rather than transforming himself, but it’s still a worthy ambition. Parents unfamiliar with the book may be shocked at the decidedly dark tone of the material – these are children doing hard labor – but kids will dig it, largely because both the book and the film are premised on an assumption of their inherent toughness, something any kid will not only appreciate, but respect. Frankly, I’m shocked that Disney, frequent purveyor of sleeping beauties and singing animated animals, is the studio behind this wonderfully black comedy/morality tale for children, but maybe Disney, too, saw past the material’s deliciously macabre bent to find also a thrilling little essay on friendship, fate, and the restorative powers of onions.
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