Rated PG - Running Time: 1:51 - Released 4/18/03

Like last fall’s Tuck Everlasting, Andrew Davis’s unfortunately titled Holes is a simplistic but generally enjoyable Disney-produced film aimed at the pre-teen set, but with enough charm and complexity to offer at least mild appeal to their adult companions. Based on the book by Louis Sachar (and adapted for the screen by the author), it lists an “introducing” credit for a young man named Shia LeBeouf, whose previous appearances include a few TV movies produced exclusively for the Disney Channel and a starring role on that network’s Even Stevens TV series. Although his role here doesn’t really call for anything extraordinary in the way of acting, it functions as a serviceable big-screen debut and shows he has promise if the right opportunities continue to come his way.

Some critics have apparently made jokes about this movie having “holes” in the story, etc., but I think this line of critique can be largely defused by a good look at director Davis’s stylistic treatment of the project. Seemingly aware that this is a rather wild and far-fetched tale, he presents it like a legend, with lots of flashbacks between several different periods in the history of the situation and some supernatural elements thrown in for good measure. It’s not all strictly believable from a logical standpoint, but Davis’s tone suggests a sort of “tall tale” feeling that helps to excuse the occasional credibility issues. The main setting is a desert camp that serves as a detention facility for delinquent boys, but since several of the characters’ ancestors figure into a kind of combined legend of the area, there is a lot of skipping back and forth in time to explain their complex and intertwined story.

Wrongly convicted of stealing a pair of shoes from a shelter for homeless children, Texas teenager Stanley Yelnats IV (LeBeouf) is sentenced to serve 18 months at Camp Greenlake, whose pastoral name belies the fact that it is actually a hot, dusty desert where the inmates are forced to dig holes in the dry lakebed (while fending off thirst, exhaustion, rattlesnakes, and the even-more-deadly Yellow Spotted Lizard), for the ostensible purpose of “building character.” Convinced by his father (Henry Winkler) and grandfather (Nathan Davis) that his bad fortune is the result of an ancient curse put on the Yelnats men long ago, Stanley accepts his fate. Arriving at the barren camp, he meets his mean but stoogelike taskmaster (Jon Voight), his slightly more friendly counselor (Tim Blake Nelson), and his fellow detainees, each of whom is required to dig one cylindrical hole per day, 5 feet deep and 5 feet in diameter, by order of the mysterious and nasty warden (Sigourney Weaver), who does not appear until about an hour into the film. Sporting nicknames like Armpit, X-Ray, Magnet, and Zig-Zag, the boys at first treat Stanley like the dirt they’re digging, with the exception of a little kid named Zero (Khleo Thomas), who never spoke until Stanley came along. After a few weeks and a few misadventures, however, Stanley becomes one of the gang, finally earning the nickname “Caveman.”

Meanwhile, through numerous flashbacks, we learn of an ill-fated love story that took place in the same location about 100 years ago, when Greenlake, Texas, was actually a beautiful lake with a little pioneer town next to it. This story, starring Patricia Arquette, Dule Hill, and Scott Plank, is told in traditional old-west fashion and reveals, among other things, the warden’s real reason for wanting all the excavation. Finally, the Yelnats family curse is explained in yet another flashback scenario starring Damien Luvara and Eartha Kitt. Although some of the narrative meanderings seem overly complex, it all ties together nicely at the end, bringing about an unexpectedly satisfying conclusion to the present-day story.

Although Holes isn’t perfect (it contains some stupid sub-plots, some inane characterizations, and some seriously cheesy special effects, mainly involving the lizards), it is certainly worth a look and offers a pleasant diversion until the summer blockbusters arrive and knock it down into the abyss of video store anonymity. ****

Copyright 2003 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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