Right off, you wouldn't think a movie with such an extraordinarily bland title would hold much fascination for children or adults, but, in fact, this 2003 family entertainment from Walt Disney Pictures carries its weight pretty well for all ages. It's not in the category of a "Harry Potter" extravaganza, but in its low-key way "Holes" is funny and engaging. I just wish it hadn't packed so much typical Disney baggage along with it.
I also wish the movie were better focused. It's based on the popular children's novel by Louis Sachar, who also wrote the screenplay. However, the problem I've seen with any number of authors who turn their own books into screenplays is that they don't want to leave anything out, resulting in a good deal of scattershot condensing. "Holes," for instance, is a very funny dark comedy, sometimes. It's also a very serious drama, sometimes. And it's also very sentimental and melodramatic, sometimes. Plus, it has a quintessential Disney feel-good ending tagged on. I mean, there's only so much a film can do in 111 minutes without feeling disjointed. Add to this dilemma the fact that the film alternates between the present and the past in an extensive series of flashbacks and even changes continents several times, and you get a somewhat diffuse end result.
Fortunately, for all its comings and goings, "Holes" manages to involve the viewer enough of the time to maintain interest. Maybe it's because just when you think the film is getting too mushy or too heavy, it returns to its darkly humorous roots and all is well again.
I should tell you what it's about. This teenager, Stanley Yelnats (TV guy Shia LaBeouf), and his parents and grandfather live in Texas, where they're kind of poor, the father (Henry Winkler) an inventor trying to find a cure for stinky shoes. It's an obvious takeoff on the family in "Willy Wonka," but the gambit doesn't last as long. Anyhow, the whole family is cursed (in part by all the males having the name "Stanley," their last name spelled backwards, a piece of business that must have looked funnier in the book that it sounds in the movie). But mainly they're cursed because, as the grandfather explains it, young Stanley's great great grandfather made a mistake back in the old country by coming to America without a fortune-teller, Madame Zeroni (Eartha Kitt), who predicted his future for the price of her being taken with him. The family has never been the same, tormented by Madame Zeroni's hex for all eternity. When the movie opens, Stanley is innocently walking down the street when a pair of valuable "Sweet Feet" Clyde Livingston athletic shoes fall on his head. Stanley is arrested and convicted for stealing them and sent to a prison farm for teens called Camp Green Lake; it's in the middle of a desert.
Here the movie takes a turn into "Cool Hand Luke" territory, with the kids substituting for the hardened criminals in "Luke," Stanley eventually stealing a guard's pickup truck, and the soundtrack complete with bluesy chain-gang songs playing in the background. It's pretty amusing stuff. The kids are there for rehabilitation and forced to dig five-foot holes all day. Hence the title. Why do they dig? Because they're told it builds character. But we know better, right? Ulterior motives, my friends, ulterior motives.
The warden is a venomous lady played in wonderfully venomous style by Sigourney Weaver. The one and only guard the place has, the wacko, dim-witted Mr. Sir, is played equally well by Jon Voight. And the camp's crackpot, touchy-feely counselor, Dr. Pendanski, is played by Tim Blake Nelson, who did such a good job in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" They're the best parts of the show.
The kids are all less colorful characters than the adults, despite their picturesque nicknames: Squid (Jake M. Smith), Armpit (Byron Cotton), Zero (Khleo Thomas), Zigzag (Max Kasch), X-Ray (Brenden Jefferson), and Barfbag (Zane Holtz), among others. Once Stanley earns their respect, which has to happen in these kinds of films, they dub him Caveman. I found the young people stereotypical and interchangeable, but they make good pawns for the adults in the picture to manipulate.
Then, there are those flashbacks I mentioned. They serve to give the movie variety (the desert gets boring really fast), but because they take up maybe a third of the film's running time, they interfere with the narrative flow and eventually become a distraction. Some of them are clever, but some are needlessly filled with sentiment and melodrama. The flashbacks embrace the Old Country and the New, the main one involving Kissin' Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette), a former schoolmarm turned outlaw, who manages somehow to get involved indirectly with Stanley's great great grand-relative and the family curse and somethingorother. It all gets a bit convoluted by the last hour, but, as I say, just when you figure it's going off the deep end, it comes back and grabs you with its whimsy and high spirits.
One thing, though. All this hole-digging business I figured must obviously be metaphorical symbolism for some sorts of personal or sociological conditions, Man's never-ending struggle to survive or to find his roots or to establish his individuality or whatever. I even thought for a moment the holes might be religious puns (holy ground and all), but I could not for the life of me come up with anything of significance beyond the kids' digging holes for the covert (and, it turns out, rather mundane) reasons I alluded to earlier. Every time the movie gets serious and starts to make an insightful observation, it returns to something silly or parodic (even "M.A.S.H" and "Meatballs" get spoofed). Ultimately, it's all the better for it.
While "Holes" may be more than a tad unfocused in direction and a mite willy-nilly in structure, and while there are too many cutesy Disney touches in it and simultaneously too many concessions to gross teenage sensibilities (flatulence gags, rap music, and the like), plus a too-good-to-be-true ending, the amazing thing is that it still works! Or maybe it's because of all the film's goofiness and meandering that it comes off so well. It's a strange mix in a lot of ways, in its characters and plot and action, and maybe its very strangeness and unexpectedness are at the heart of its success. What's more, the movie accomplishes its job without resorting to high-tech special effects, which is also quite an accomplishment these days. At any rate, "Holes" is an appealing little surprise and worth watching.
Disney/Buena Vista have just recently gone back to remastering many of their discs to THX standards, and the results are quite satisfying. The screen image is presented in a 1.74:1 anamorphic ratio, which is hardly thrilling, but the colors are bright and generally well defined. A higher-than-average bit rate ensures decent detail and deep hues. There is no grain present of any mention and almost no jittery lines, although, to be honest, there are few opportunities for many closely spaced horizontal or vertical lines in the middle of the desert. In any case, the video is fine all the way around.
There is an impressive use of the surrounds in a movie that wouldn't necessarily call for them. The few gunshots that occur come off best, but more subtle things like wind, rain, flying bugs, hammering,
and, of course, digging sounds appear most realistic. There is also a fair degree of musical ambience enhancement in the rear channels, plus a reasonably wide stereo spread in the front. Additionally, there is a big, deep, loud bass, which, fortunately, is not overused.
The Disney folks have been getting more generous of late with their bonus materials, and they've even gone back to including a paper insert for chapter selections. Thank goodness for small favors. On this edition, we start with not one but two audio commentaries, the first with cast members Shia LaBeouf, Khleo Thomas, Jake M. Smith, and Max Kasch and the second with director Andrew Davis and author/screenwriter Louis Sachar. Next, there's a brief gag reel, six deleted scenes, and an abbreviated music video, "Dig It," performed by the cast. After those are two featurettes, "The Boys of D-Tent," ten minutes behind the scenes with the young actors, and "Digging the First Hole," nine minutes with the adult stars, director, and writer. Then, to conclude the bonuses there are Sneak Peeks at six other Disney/Buena Vista titles, a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual tests, and twenty-four scene selections. English, French, and Spanish are the spoken languages provided, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
For all its faults, "Holes" has an overriding good humor and sense of fun that saves it from the usual drudge of children's pictures. Indeed, "Holes" may be a film that genuinely entertains the whole family, a phrase used more often than not to describe something that no self-respecting adult would go near.
The Wife-O-Meter stayed the course, and while she and I wished the film were a lot more focused and a lot less Disneyesque, we both enjoyed it, something not even the Disney classic "Sleeping Beauty" could boast. "Holes" is not a masterpiece by any means, but it passes the time pleasantly enough.