One young person I know had two burning questions in antsy-pants anticipation of seeing the movie Holes. First, does the plot jiggle back and forth in time like it does in the book? And second, do the movie people keep in the parts about the spotted yellow lizards?
I’m pleased to report that of course there are plenty of spotted yellow lizards crawling through such a gallivanting saga about how an ancient family curse affects a bunch of boys sentenced, for various less-than-felonious misdeeds, to dig big holes at Camp Green Lake Juvenile Correctional Facility, in a particularly greenless, lake-less part of Texas. At one point, the palindromically named hero, Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), and his hole-digging-expert friend Zero (Khleo Thomas) sit quietly and bravely in a crater while creepy lizards crawl right over them. Which isn’t pleasant but is very useful, because though the lizards don’t bother the boys, they do scare the even creepier trio of adults who hover around the lip of the chasm: the Warden (Sigourney Weaver), who paints her nails with rattlesnake venom; the overseer, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight), who gulps sunflower seeds by the fistful; and their annoying sidekick, Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), who obsessively slathers his nose with sunblock.
I’m even happier to reassure close readers of Louis Sachar’s Newbery Medal-winning young-adult favorite that the past and present loop quite agreeably in director Andrew Davis’ worthy adaptation. After all, the screenplay is by the author himself, who, having written a rousing, well-built adventure, saw no reason to gunk up a good thing either by adding extraneous whimsy or by cutting vivid details. (One change: LaBeouf isn’t large like Stanley is in the book — just medium-size and still very good at conveying kid-size equanimity in the face of adult nuttiness.)
But credit for the page-to-screen success of ”Holes” also goes to the movie’s invitingly natural, brightly colored visual style. Like its much more famous cousins in best-sellerdom, the ”Harry Potter” books, the story balances seriousness, silliness, and bravery, and what ”Holes” lacks in ”Potter” magical grandeur (and budget) on screen, it makes up for in intimacy and its affection for the look of sunbaked earth and dirty-faced kids. Even with the curse that looms over the Yelnats family (the legacy of a pig-stealing great-great-grandfather), home life with Stanley’s father (Henry Winkler), mother (Siobhan Fallon Hogan), and grandfather (Nathan Davis) looks cozy. So, too, does the parallel tall tale set in the 19th-century Old West, in which a sweet schoolteacher (Patricia Arquette), once wooed by a courtly onion seller (Dulé Hill), transforms herself into a daring outlaw called Kissin’ Kate Barlow.
The young actors play their roles with the relaxed focus of regular boys. The adult actors participate with the same gleeful commitment as the fancy British thespians who totter through ”Potter.” Honoring the literary ground beneath it, spotted yellow lizards and all, the movie ”Holes” is easy to dig.