Digs itself several, but clambering out of them presents no problem. Both roundly and cylindrically entertaining.
Movies aimed primarily at kids have a bad reputation, at least as far as I'm concerned. Not to say that some outside of those made by Pixar haven't succeeded but many seem to treat children with contempt, poorly written, stupid, vacuous and above all lazy. It seems as though some films seem content to just occupy space on the screen in the hope that kids haven't yet developed enough taste or experience to know just how shabbily they're being treated.
Which is why it's nice to see something that credits them with some degree of intelligence to appreciate a proper, well structured story that doesn't rely on fart jokes or gimmicky effects. Despite the occasional naive scene and a typically saccharin laden ending, Holes is a well thought out, solidly plotted and well acted slice of entertainment that should appeal as much to parents as it does to the kids.
Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf) is arrested for a crime he didn't commit, being sentenced to eighteen months at a correctional facility after a suspiciously hasty trial decides he had stolen a pair of trainers that fell from the sky and hit him. His family are distraught and attribute it to the Yelnats family curse, acquired after his great great grandfather angered a fortune-telling Ertha Kitt. Since then their family line has been plagued with terrible luck, resulting in Stanley's father (Henry Winkler) being unable to complete his foot odour cure.
Stanley is shipped off to the middle of a baking desert to Camp Green Lake where camp guard Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) outlines the details of their plans for him. Stanley will dig holes. Through the digging of these holes, the bad child will be changed into a good child as this digging encourages character building. Stanley is thrown into a bunkhouse with a bunch of other young offenders who go by strange little nicknames like Zero, Squid, Armpit and X-Ray. Under the tender mercies of Mr. Sir, Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Smith) and the Warden (Sigourney Weaver), Stanley digs a whole lotta holes and eventually bonds with his fellow prisoners, Zero especially whom Stanley teaches to read.
You don't dig unless you want to bury something or unearth something, and clues to what The Warden hopes to unearth are unfolding parallel to the main story as a mild mannered school mistress Kate (Patricia Arquette) becomes involved in a multiracial relationship with handyman / onion seller Sam (Dule Hill). The tragic end forced on them by an intolerant society drives Kate to brigandry, becoming one of the most feared bandits in the West.
These stories tie together through the generations by a common bond of the family curse, and such a structure could easily prove messy and even perhaps overly-complex for the very young kids. Complex? No. Messy? Yeah, sort of. It's all good natured enough that there's no irritation caused but the narrative does switch between the two timeframes with little rhyme or reason, bar the fact that you need to know both stories. There's no other way it could have been handled really, separating the two would have been disastrous. It's a brave man who throws a non-linear narrative at kids and somehow Andrew Davis has pulled it off better than a host of other directors, despite a dubious pedigree. Collateral Damage? Chain Reaction? Steven Segal vehicle Nico? A history of crime like this bars you from entry into certain countries!
Acting ability often comes low on the features list for kid's movies, especially the shallower variety that revolves around physical comedy and fart gags but there's exemplary performances all round in Holes. Shia LaBeouf may have a strange name but he plays Stanley with nous, Khleo Thomas occasionally touching as Zero. John Voight and Tim Blake Nelson are similarly excellent, playing their characters with a necessary hint of humour without camping it up for cheap laughs. It's only Henry Winkler that gets to play a comic character and even despite his obsession with smelly trainers he somehow manages to avoid pastiche territory.
Fine acting performances were necessary so as not to cheapen the story, which has some very serious adult themes. Love, jealousy, hatred, revenge, racism, destiny, heroism - there's more thematic meat in this story than I've seen in any number of more supposedly cinematically mature adult movies of late. By that I mean films aimed at adults, not actual 'adult movies'. Sophisticated might not be exactly the right term for it but it's a heck of a lot more deserving of the title than trash like The Lizzie McGuire Movie or What A Girl Wants. The few puerile gags that weasel their way into the script seem out of place with the more surreal elements supplied largely by Voight's grizzled veteran that seems to have been left out in the sun too long. His entry for the armed portion of the Ministry Of Silly Walks portfolio is hilarious.
A special moment must be taken to mention the quality of the soundtrack. Anything with The Eels featured prominently is alright by me, and there are suitably atmospheric country and western noodlings for the Sam and Kate story interludes. For some unfathomable reason the soundtrack to any film is normally the least important thing in a movie for me by a long margin to the extent (as you may have noticed) I rarely comment on it. Whether this is because most soundtracks are sadly forgettable or because I suck is a matter for discussion, but I noticed this soundtrack and that surely counts for something.
I've little to whine about in this film. Perhaps the set-up for getting Stanley into the camp is overly simplistic. Perhaps the drippy emotional happy ending could have been implied rather than shown. This might not have been suitable for the younger audience, who can say. There are a few pretty ropey CG lizards. That's about the extent of my niggles and not a one of them are important enough to hinder my enjoyment. Bearing in mind how typically curmudgeonly I am about little things like that, this is actually a roundabout way of saying I really enjoyed it. I'm aware that this is taken from a much lauded kids novel by Louis Sachar, who also provides the screenplay, but as I've no experience of it I can make no comparisons. I can say that for a fairly serious movie aimed at children this pulls off a mix of drama, comedy and mature cinematic devices that credit children with some degree of intelligence rather than the utter contempt that's generally aimed at them.
In a world where moviemakers seem to think that any poor quality, badly plotted, shoddily acted, cinematographically bereft, vapid tripe can be served up on a platter to kids because they won't know any better and will be happy with their Pick 'n' Mix and vat of Pepsi™ Holes is a breath of fresh air in a stale genre of fart joke filled inanity. Finding Nemo might edge it out for this month's best kids film, but Holes is a very close second.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Jon Voight (Mr. Sir)
Tim Blake Nelson (Dr. Pendanski)
Shia LaBeouf (Stanley)
Khleo Thomas (Zero)