A rare kids' flick that engages youthful intellect and heart instead of patting youngsters on the head and spoon-feeding them stock anecdotes and tie-in toys, "Holes" is a fun family flick with a manifold plot about a smart, quiet teenager who gets the fate-fueled chance to reverse his family's hereditary bad luck.
It seems a curse was put the great-great-grandfather of curly-headed moppet Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), and the trickle-down effect has landed the kid at a parched, ghost-town-like juvenile rehabilitation center in West Texas -- ironically called Camp Green Lake -- for a crime he didn't commit.
The venomous Warden (Sigorney Weaver, delighting in the role's sneering, sinister qualities) has a strange idea for building character in her charges: the boys spend every single day digging five-foot-deep holes in the dry lakebed. Her policies are enforced by the Mr. Sir, a classically menacing, beer-bellied, bow-legged figure played by Jon Voight in a scene-stealing standout performance. Sporting a graying Elvis pompadour, a villain's pencil mustache, twitchy wild eyes, and a low-slung holster, he's the kind of baddie who makes you giggle while making your skin crawl too, as he squints in the faces of potential escapees and seethes that in the desert "the buzzards'll pick ya clean by the end of the third day."
But despite having to dig all day and earn the respect of his not- so- tough- once- you- get- to- know- them fellow inmates, Stanley has time to wonder what the warden is really up to, since she's especially interested in anything unusual the boys find in their holes.
In the process of unraveling this mystery, director Andrew Davis and screenwriter Louis Sachar (who adapted his own popular novel) include several parallel-running flashbacks. One features an ancestor of Stanley's who was once robbed of a chest full of gold by a beautiful Old West bandit on a trail near where Camp Green Lake now stands. Another takes place in the once-prosperous lakeside hamlet, which was run in the 1880s by the Warden's evil granddaddy until a drought dried up the lake.
"Holes" is a story in which destiny rules and there are no coincidences -- and while it's not a sophisticated mystery, realizing how all the pieces fit together is as much fun on a kid-flick level as something like "The Usual Suspects" would be for adults. For example, Stanley's teaching a troubled inner-city orphan called Zero (the amazingly natural, funny and poignant Khleo Thomas) to read isn't just a feel-good, Sunday-school testament to his character. It becomes integral to revealing how the missing treasure and the girl bandit (Patricia Arquette) relate to Camp Green Lake and the Old West town, where a black produce vendor (Dulé Hill) and a white schoolteacher (also played by Arquette) were persecuted for falling in love more than 100 years before.
The plot has a few unfortunate gaffes (when it turns out Zero isn't an orphan, there's no explanation of where his mother has been all these years) and the film is inundated with an insufferably trite score (by Joel McNeely). But Davis ("Collateral Damage," "A Perfect Murder") has a lot of respect for the smarts of his target audience and never falls back on clichés (there are a few) to drive the story assuming kids won't be any the wiser.
Inspired by "Cool Hand Luke" for its inmate antagonism and camaraderie, and a considerable step above most multiplex family fare, "Holes" isn't genius, but it is generously enjoyable all-ages entertainment.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Friday 18th April 2003
Box Office USA: $67.3M
Distributed by: Buena Vista Pictures
Production compaines: Chicago Pacific Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 77%
Fresh: 103 Rotten: 30
IMDB: 7.1 / 10
Director: Andrew Davis
Starring: Sigourney Weaver as Warden Walker, Jon Voight as Marion Sevillo, Tim Blake Nelson as Dr. Pendanski, Patricia Arquette as Miss Kathryn Barlow, Shia LaBeouf as Stanley Yelnats/Caveman, Khleo Thomas as Hector Zeroni, Jake M. Smith as Squid, Byron Cotton as Armpit, Brenden Richard Jefferson as X-Ray, Eartha Kitt as Madame Zeroni, Siobhan Fallon as Stanley's Mother
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