Dig it uh oh oh Dig it. Young Shia LaBeouf. Mr. Sir and yellow spotted lizards and “I can fix that.”
Is it coming back to you? If you were born between 1990 and 1999, there’s a good chance that you have a few hazy memories of the 2003 Disney film Holes, based on the Newbery award-winning book by Louis Sachar. You may even remember the gist of the story, too: young Stanley Yelnats is sent to a juvenile detention center in the Texas desert for a crime he didn’t commit, and while there, he’s required to dig holes every day alongside his fellow inmates. It’s possible you recall the movie being fun and entertaining. But if that’s all you can call to mind, then you do not remember the masterpiece that Holes was and continues to be. Allow me, then, to enlighten you with why Holes is one of the greatest family movies and book adaptions of all time.
1. The performances.
Kids’ movies are notorious for their deplorable acting. I don’t know why you would need proof of that, but if you do, just watch a few seconds of Sylvester Stallone in this clip from Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over. Seen enough? Oftentimes, family movies are an opportunity for actors to grab an easy paycheck and do very little work. If that’s happening in Holes, I don’t see it.
For one thing, Shia LaBeouf gives what might still be his best performance to date (besides maybe Fury). LaBeouf is authentic, relatable, funny, awkward, sympathetic, and best of all, you can hardly tell that he’s acting. You never question that he’s an earnest kid who’s trying to make the best of a horrible situation. LaBeouf just is Stanley Yelnats, and we believe it.
But then there’s the rest of the cast, and man, do they deliver. Remember, these actors are tasked with the impossible: to bring existing book characters to life in such a way as to honor the source material. And as someone who loved the book, they definitely pull it off. The hole-digging gang is fabulous: Kleo Thomas as Zero, Byron Cotton as Armpit, Brendan Jefferies as X-Ray, Miguel Castro as Magnet, Max Kasch as Zigzag, etc. They really flesh out the bizarre world of Holes, where Sandlot meets The Shawshank Redemption and somehow works. But guys, can we talk about Jon Voight as the twitchy, grumpy Mr. Sir, or Tim Blake Nelson as the irritatingly cheerful Dr. Pendanski, or Sigourney Weaver as the mysterious Warden? These are the kind of performances that are a joy to watch, because you can see how much fun the actors have inhabiting the characters. They don’t have to be as good as they are, but the actors all commit, and the movie shines because of it.
2. The story.
I had forgotten how intricate this movie is until I rewatched it recently, and goodness gracious, this movie is complex! For one thing, the structure of the movie is unprecedented in a live-action Disney movie, bordering on Inception-level. Yes, I’m serious.
There is the main story, of course, Stanley’s arc of being sent to Camp Green Lake and digging holes. His story is not completely linear, though, jumping back and forth between his time at Camp Green and Lake his supposed crime, home life, and court case. In addition to this, there are not one, not two, but three subplots that are explored throughout the movie. First, there is the story of Stanley’s “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great- grandfather," who is cursed by the fortune teller Madame Zeroni and who sails from Latvia to America in the early 19th century. Then, there is the story of the town of Green Lake and the doomed love of a local school teacher and an African-American onion seller. And finally, there is the story of Stanley’s great-grandfather who, after being robbed by notorious outlaw Kissin’ Kate Barlow, finds refuge on a mountain called God’s Thumb.
The movie juggles all of these timelines and worlds with aplomb, which is a feat in and of itself. But what’s most incredible about the film is how all of these narratives intersect with one another. There is not a wasted moment in Holes. Everything comes back into play, and the culmination of these various threads is nothing short of spectacular.
3. The soundtrack.
This movie doesn’t deserve to have as cool of music as it does. But it does. I’m not even talking about the song that everyone remembers, “Dig It,” which was actually written for the movie and actually features the kids in the movie rapping surprisingly well. You must look it up. No, I’m talking about an eclectic line-up that includes Shaggy, Keb Mo, North Mississippi Allstars, Eels, and Dr. John. Somehow, the movie jumps from reggae to gritty alternative rock to bluegrass to soul and it never feels inauthentic. Instead, the music always serves to flesh out the bizarre, poignant world that is Camp Green Lake.
4. The themes.
If you’ve believed anything I’ve written so far, then believe me when I say that Holes is actually a profound exploration of the human condition and destiny. At varying points, the film deals with the issues of poverty, racism, criminal justice, the abuse of authority, greed, and more. On a grander scale, though, Holes is about generations. The film poses the question of whether we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of our ancestors—if we are, in fact, “cursed for always and eternity”—or if we can perhaps break free of our cycles of misfortune. Also, if you want to get into it, the movie deals with notions of free will vs. fate, and whether everything that happens to us is truly random or if all of our stories are intricately connected in some great masterplan. Note Stanley’s journey from skeptic to believer. Yeah, I bet you didn’t remember a movie about kids with shovels having this much depth. But it totally does! Let no one say this film is unambitious.
And that, dear reader, is my case for why you should rewatch Holes at your earliest convenience. I am convinced that it is one of the most engrossing, thought-provoking, and wildly inventive family films in recent history. I am admittedly biased, of course. I could probably quote the whole movie verbatim. But I also do think you would actually enjoy it, right now, no matter what age or life stage you’re in.
Plus, now you’ve got that song stuck in your head, huh? Dig it uh oh oh Dig it. Dig it uh oh oh oh…. Yeah, that’ll be rattling around in your brain all day. Trust me on that.