The Harry Potter phenomenon -- on the page, in the movies, at the bank -- has aroused in publishers and studio heads alike a sudden new appreciation of our children's needs. These people understand that no consumer is more motivated than a kid in the grip of a craze, so every last one of them is struggling to come up with the next Harry or Frodo.
For the moment, the people at Walt Disney Pictures are betting on Stanley Yelnats IV.
If you've never heard of Louis Sachar's award-winning children's novel, Holes, young Stanley, its intrepid hero, is an unlucky boy who gets shipped off to a very peculiar camp in the middle of a scorching Texas desert, for a petty theft he didn't commit. There he learns all kinds of useful things about getting along with his fellow "campers," finding strength within himself, and surviving.
In book and movie, he must also contend with an army of yellow-spotted lizards (a poisonous figment of the author's imagination) and the mysterious obsessions of Camp Green Lake's warden, who combines the ill temper of Cinderella's stepmother with the tyranny of Strother Martin in Cool Hand Luke. Her marching orders? Each day, each camper must dig a five-by-five hole in the sand "to build character." We suspect there's another reason.
If this already sounds a bit complicated for kids' stuff, wait till you get a load of the movie's subplots and the tangled timeframes. Stanley (appealing newcomer Shia LaBeouf) is said to be in the grip of a family curse originating in 18th-century Latvia, so there are flashbacks to 18th-century Latvia. The Stetson-wearing, white-Chrysler-driving warden (if you can believe it, Sigourney Weaver) is under another kind of curse, so we also get flashbacks to the Old West, where a pretty schoolmarm (Patricia Arquette), disillusioned by an act of violence, morphs into a legendary train robber and killer named Kissin' Kate Barlow. Meanwhile, we also glimpse Stanley Yelnats's hangdog family. Just for a start, his father, Stanley III (Henry Winkler -- da Fonz), is a failed inventor seeking a cure for foot odor.
For director Andrew Davis, Holes represents a major change of pace. His past credits are muscle-flexing, big-budget action thrillers such as The Fugitive, Under Siege, and Collateral Damage, so it's a bit strange to find him in charge of an inspirational Disney fantasy about little boys locked up in a pre-teen prison camp, with side trips to old Latvia. But give Davis credit for versatility. He moves the movie along smartly, and, with help from Sachar's screenplay, deftly executes the dual mission that's driven kiddie lit since the 19th century and kiddie flicks since the 20th: First, Holes amuses its young viewers with pre-adolescent comedy, youthful bonhomie, the notion of buried treasure, and a touch of fable. But it also means to scare them a little (hey, they're in the joint) while providing crucial life lessons. Here, they include protecting the weak, rejecting greed, demanding social justice, standing up for yourself, and building self-esteem.
In other words, have fun, guys, but don't forget to eat your mashed potatoes.