A scrupulously faithful adaptation of the massively successful young adult novel by Louis Sachar, “Holes” will no doubt speak clearly and appealingly to its intended early teen audience. But just as the book, about a group of wayward boys doing time at a most peculiar detention camp, was one of those publishing phenomena that shot right past adults’ radar, Disney’s film version looks poised to become a hit without the patronage of many people beyond voting age. And a good thing too, since the picture’s instructional air, simplistic dramatic constructs and broad brush strokes make for a porridge too bland and good-for-you to appeal to more developed palates. Title’s cachet, the Disney label and story’s upbeat, inspirational qualities should translate into potent spring biz, which will continue far into the future in ancillary markets.
Among kids, Sachar’s 1998 novel ranks right up there in popularity with the Harry Potter tomes. The winner of many honors for young people’s literature, including the National Book Award, “Holes,” which is written in very simple declarative sentences, has sold millions of copies in the 30-odd countries where it’s been published. Central to the connection the book achieves is its message that even the most onerous of adversities, from homelessness and illiteracy to imprisonment and family curses, can be overcome. From this optimistic mindset, which promises that even chronic losers can be cured, one can at least deduce that Sachar is not a Boston Red Sox fan.
With Sachar himself writing the screenplay, his first, fidelity to the source is assured, and director Andrew Davis serves up the tale of youthful pluck with a professionalism so smooth as to lack any texture, bite or genuine feeling. Despite the mild discomfort of the Texas desert camp and the desperate straits of the pubescent boys, there isn’t a moment of actual pain, desire or deprivation in the movie — no moment of truth where anyone’s life or future is on the line. The harshness of the environment and the kids’ potentially bleak prospects are shrugged off in favor of a mildly prankish surface underlaid with a foundation of matter-of-fact perseverance. The Spencer Tracy-Mickey Rooney “Boys Town” 65 years ago had more sense of youthful imperilment and bitterness than this.
At the center of things is Stanley Yelnats IV (the surname is “Stanley” spelled backward), whose name suggests a certain preoccupation with tradition. Unfortunately, that tradition is one of perennial bad luck going back four generations, to the moment when a mystical seer (Eartha Kitt) back in Latvia placed a curse on Stanley’s great-great grandfather before the young man’s departure for America. The family losing streak has been manfully upheld ever since by Stanley’s grandpa (the director’s father Nate Davis) and dad (Henry Winkler), a hapless inventor.
The bushy-haired Stanley (Shia LaBeouf, of the Disney Channel series “Even Stevens”) continues the heritage when he accidentally comes into possession of some valuable celebrity sneakers that have been stolen from a homeless shelter. Amazingly sentenced to do prison time for the would-be crime, he chooses the alternative: 18 months at Camp Green Lake, which a century ago was graced by water and trees, but is now shadeless desert pockmarked by the thousands of holes the inmates have been forced to dig over the years in the bone-dry ground.
As in a moppet version of “Bent,” the boys are marched out every day before dawn and must toil until they complete a hole, which must measure five feet across and deep. The idea behind all the digging, they are told by their screw-loose overseer Mr. Sir (Jon Voight in elaborate Elvis pompadour and bulging gut), is that it will “build character.” But there is clearly another motive, tipped when would-be shrink and all-purpose flunky Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson) instructs Stanley to show him “anything interesting” he might uncover.
At the 40-minute mark, the discovery of a large bullet with the initials “KB” carved onto it prompts the elaborate entrance of “The Warden” (Sigourney Weaver), an imposing woman whose roots in these arid parts go back a long way. What she says goes around here, which ends up cutting both ways for Stanley.
A fair amount of time is given over to Stanley’s initial hazing by the other boys, who go by such names as Armpit, ZigZag, Barfbag, Lump, Magnet, Squid and X-Ray, and who eventually name the new arrival Caveman. Of particular interest is the most diminutive of the group, named Zero (Khleo Thomas), whose name bespeaks his verbal output until Stanley arrives and induces him to talk. A homeless kid abandoned by his mother, Zero eventually asks Stanley to teach him how to read, which is just the most prominent of the numerous character-building strands that figure so importantly in Sachar’s agenda.
Providing structural variation are a series of flashbacks, devoted on one hand to the Latvian mishaps of the first Stanley’s youth, and on the other to a Western saga involving an interracial romance with a tragic end that’s telegraphed in the most achingly obvious terms — and the subsequent outlaw career of Kissin’ Kate Barlow (Patricia Arquette). These 19th-century backdrops serve to tie together the legacies of both Stanley and the Warden historically and personally.
At one point, little Zero runs off into the desert, where he will certainly perish, only to be pursued by Stanley. The adventure they share scaling some cliffs and helping one another epitomizes the best aspects of the material, which have to do with how the camaraderie of the boys who share mutual hardship results in newfound maturity based on trust and lessons learned. Unfortunately, Stanley’s ultimate triumph feels far too easy and complete, lacking any sense of life’s inevitable mix of good and bad. Here, you’re either ear-deep in a hole or not.
Pic’s visuals are handsome, but the storytelling lacks a dynamic and sense of rhythm. Thesps hit the called-for obvious notes, and Voight generates a few laughs with his bumbling two-bit villainy, but no emotion is forthcoming. Joel McNeely’s score typifies the overall film’s sought-after tone of quirky inspirationalism.