Dig it! Holes not too deep for kids
In the 1960s, when America emerged from its age of innocence, Walt Disney Pictures lost their grip on what constituted "family viewing." Television began to catch up with reality, but Disney produced a series of embarrassingly naïve movies that people just stopped going to.
Holes indicates that may be happening again. Based on, and reportedly faithful to (it was adapted by the author) Louis Sachar's novel, it manages to have a certain moral ambiguity without a moment's realism. This may result from the requirements of a PG rating, but it makes for rather bland fluff with less relevance than intended for viewers too old for Piglet's Big Movie but too young for Eyes Wide Shut.
The setting is Camp Green Lake, a facility in the Texas desert where there used to be a lake. It's a juvenile detention center run by The Warden (Sigourney Weaver) and her flunkies, Mr. Sir (Jon Voight) and Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson), who "build character" by having the boys in their charge dig holes every day.
They're obviously up to something, but no one checks up on them, and the boys just do as they're told, as afraid of Mr. Sir and his gun as of the Texas yellow spotted lizard that causes a "slow and painful death."
We spend a lot of time in the company of the boys without learning what most of them did to get them sent there. The one we follow to the camp is the palindromically named Stanley Yelnats (Shia LaBeouf), son of failed inventor Stanley Yelnats III (Henry Winkler). Besides being cursed by that name, the men of the family are under the 150-year-old curse of a Latvian witch (Eartha Kitt) that brings them bad luck.
It's Stanley IV's bad luck to be caught with a pair of stolen sneakers that fell from the sky and hit him on the head. This gets him 18 months at Camp Green Lake, which is introduced with hard-boiled (or at least half-baked) scenes right out of Cool Hand Luke. (Someone even yells "Fresh meat!" when Stanley arrives. I wonder how they got that through.)
(Something else that slips through is more confusing. Mr. Sir's real name is revealed as Marion. One of the boys says, "I didn't know that was a man's name," and Mr. Sir replies, "It ain't." Does that mean he's transgendered?)
Some boys bully Stanley, who picks up the nickname "Caveman," and some befriend him; but the only one who makes an impact is Zero (Khleo Thomas), the runt of the litter but a fast digger.
The unexciting present-day story is frequently interrupted by flashbacks, some involving Stanley's ancestors, some Green Lake history, and some both. Perhaps most interesting, though still lacking a spark, is the Green Lake story. Patricia Arquette plays a schoolteacher who becomes an outlaw, Kissin' Kate Barlow, after an affair (well, they kiss once) with a black man (Dulé Hill).
Weaver, whose presence underscores the difficulty actresses of a certain age have in getting decent roles, doesn't appear for 40 minutes. By that time the stage is set for a capital-E Entrance, but it falls as flat as the rest of the movie. Voight and Nelson do some of their hammiest overacting, which is obviously what they were cast for.
Everything is tied up in the end, so neatly you expect to find out Latvia is Texas spelled backwards. Director Andrew Davis is used to making thrillers (The Fugitive, Under Siege) for grownups and seems at a loss to do anything under the restrictions imposed here.
There's probably a narrow age range, perhaps just before puberty, where boys will dig Holes, but it wasn't able to bring out my inner prepubescent.
P.S. It's no big deal, but if you stay through the credits there's an extra surprise at the end.