It’s impossible not to feel sorry for Stanley Yelnats (Shia Lebeouf), the hero of “Holes,” the new family film from Walt Disney Pictures. The fourth in a time-honored tradition of Yelnats men named Stanley (their last named spelled backwards), Stanley IV had the cards stacked against him long before he was shuffled into a family of eccentric men.

His father, Stanley Jr. (Henry Winkler), tinkers as an inventor, working on the age-old problem of combating tennis shoe odor. His grandfather, Stanley Sr. (Nathan Davis), carries on about an old curse that only affects men in the family. Things go from bad to worse when the youngest Stanley is falsely accused of stealing a pair of tennis shoes donated to charity by a famous baseball player, landing him in court and sentenced to eighteen months in a juvenile detention camp.

At first Stanley sees the sentence as an escape from his home life, after all, how bad could a place Camp Green Lake, be? It’s not exactly “Camp Crystal Lake,” but there are monsters of the human variety lurking about, including a menacing female warden (Sigourney Weaver), who requires the detainees a dig a five by five foot hole each and every day in the lake’s dry bed. She and her adult minions claim it’s to build character, but we know better.

“Holes” is unlike most Disney family movies. There are no talking animals (but there are a large assortment of flying, yellow spotted lizards), campfire sing-a-longs, and just a handful of warm and fuzzy moments. The screenplay is by Louis Sachar, and based on his award-winning novel of the same name. Like the “Harry Potter” series, “Holes” is required reading for anyone under the age of sixteen. As the film’s screenwriter, Sachar remains faithful to his novel’s multi-level storylines and occasional adult themes, creating a family film that actually has something to say to kids rather than about them.

Director Andrew Davis, whose resume doesn’t really scream kid-friendly fare (“The Fugitive,” “Collateral Damage”), has done a splendid job of bringing these moments to life, never allowing the film to talk down to its intended audience. By doing so, he has created an experience that can be enjoyed by both fans of the novel and their parents. The creed of “Holes” is always expect the unexpected, and with bouncing time lines that leap from one time period to the next, the film almost always succeeds.

Davis has recruited an admirable bunch of teen actors to flesh out the characters who inhabit Camp Green Lake, which much to Stanley’s surprise, isn’t really a lake at all. Like Stanley, there are no major offenders in the camp, just a handful of misunderstood or unlucky youths who happened to wind up under the torturous tutelage of Warden, her sunflower seed chomping assistant Mr. Sir (John Voight, almost unrecognizable), and Dr. Pendaski (Tim Blake Nelson), a creepy sort who is more concerned about the effects of the sun’s rays on his nose than the welfare of his charges. This modern age, rag-tag group of “Goonies” go by names like Armpit, X-Ray, Zig-Zag and the likeable Zero (Khleo Thomas), who becomes Stanley’s best friend and confidant.

Once Stanley is inducted into the gang, Davis and Sachar do a remarkable job of making them a cohesive whole, a singular spirit intent on making the best of a bad situation. They have their work cut out for them, but each and every one of the young actors takes what could have been a one-note joke and turns them into characters that everyone can root for.

“Holes” is also a film that requires you pay attention. The plot crisscrosses back and forth in time, and between the Camp and Stanley’s home, where life goes on like clockwork. One plot line takes place in 18th Century Latvia, where the family curse is traced back to a gypsy fortuneteller named Madame Zeroni (Eartha Kitt, still purring after all these years). Another involves an Old West tale, set near the Camp, detailing the exploits of a female bandit named “Kissing” Kate Barlow (a feisty Patricia Arquette), hell bent on revenge after her interracial romance ended badly.

Like the book, these various plots zigzag through the film’s main theme, Stanley’s attempt to redeem himself and break the family curse once and for all.

In contrast to the kids, all of the adult characters have been shaded in as larger-than-life cartoons. That’s not a bad thing, as it puts the focus where it belongs, on the kids. In that respect, “Holes” reminded me of a cross between a junior high production of “Cool Hand Luke” and the film “Meatballs.” They’re not kids behaving badly, they’re just behaving like kids, which most family members should find refreshing and enjoyable.


It’s a pleasure to dig these “Holes”


Shia Lebeouf, Khleo Thomas, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Tim Blake Nelson, Henry Winkler, Patricia Arquette. Directed by Andrew Davis. Rated PG. 117 Minutes.


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