As kids movies go, "Holes" is as dark as midnight. Children toil miserably in a grim work camp, vigilante violence and murder are shown in flashbacks, a kid hits an authority figure with a heavy shovel, scary winged lizards lurk in the shadows, and general meanness prevails through most of the film.
For those accustomed to sweetness and light from Disney (which is releasing this film, with a disarmingly cheery ad campaign), the mood of "Holes" may come as a shock. But to the countless kids who've read Louis Sachar's book, it's precisely what's needed.
The book, read by thousands of Seattle schoolkids last year as part of the "What If All Kids Read the Same Book" program, is an infectious read: the grimness of the story exacerbated by the pleasure of good storytelling. Like the Harry Potter books (and movies), it creates the kind of world that a kid can escape into and yet still recognize. It's not the picture-perfect world of fairy tales but something more like the one in which we live.
While the movie may not be appropriate for very young children (particularly if they haven't read the book — the three-tiered plot can be confusing), older kids, fans of the book and parents who remember the fun of reading dark stories under the covers should be happily engrossed in this adventure.
(Some children, of course, may be disturbed by the movie's content; others will take it in stride. I asked my 8-year-old nephew, who accompanied me to the screening, if he was bothered by the murder of Sam the onion seller, which is discreet but unmistakable. He replied, quite sensibly, that no one really got shot — they were all just pretending — and proceeded to speculate on exactly what kind of fake body was in the boat. Expect to soon see his byline, instead of mine.)
Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf, in an agreeable if bland performance) is a nice kid in the wrong place at the wrong time. After being discovered in possession of a pair of stolen sneakers, Stanley is taken from his eccentric inventor family and transported to Camp Green Lake, a desert outpost pockmarked by holes 5 feet deep and 5 feet across. Under the watchful and none-too-kind eyes of the Warden (Sigourney Weaver), Mr. Sir (Jon Voight, looking appropriately leathery) and counselor Dr. Pedanski (Tim Blake Nelson), Stanley spends his days digging under the hot sun, looking for "something interesting" — they're never told what.
Meanwhile, flashbacks unfold about a generations-long curse on the Yelnats family, stemming from an Old West incident involving a blond teacher (Patricia Arquette) and a black man (Dulé Hill) with whom she falls in love. It's a little muddy for a while — though the grown-ups will stay interested by wondering "is that really Eartha Kitt?" (yes, it is, in the role of Mysterious Woman Who Puts a Curse on the Yelnats) — until the stories eventually converge, and young Stanley gets to be a hero.
Sachar's script gallops us through all these miles of plot, and director Andrew Davis does well with the actors. Weaver, in particular, brings Ripley-esque intensity to a woman so nasty, she gives herself manicures with rattlesnake venom.
"Holes," though dark, brings the pleasures of a tale well-told. It's scary stuff (in addition to what's previously described, there's a rather terrifying moment when a kid known as Armpit is denied his shower privileges) with just a hint of sweetness — a refreshing exception to most kids movies. Approach with care, and be rewarded.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org