- compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
- 2003 1 Jan
Based on Louis Sachar's bestselling novel for young readers, the new movie
Stanley is the son of an oddball visionary (Henry Winkler) determined to discover the cure for foot odor. The cure has proven elusive, but that is par for the course. The Yelnats are the latest generation to suffer under a long-running "family curse" that prevents them from succeeding at anything. Thus there is a strange irony in the fact that the family's latest misfortune—Stanley's arrest and conviction—involves a stolen pair of shoes.
Although innocent, Stanley is sentenced to 18 months at a reform camp in the desert. There, he joins a crowd of unruly youngsters in the unpleasant business of digging holes under the supervision of a cruel taskmaster (Jon Voight), a counselor with a mean streak (Tim Blake Nelson), and a mysterious warden (Sigourney Weaver). During his trials he befriends another laborer, "Zero" (Khleo Thomas), and the two help each other through trials, a desperate unplanned escape, and a mystery that involves stories of their ancestors.
Director Andrew Davis (
Watching it, I was reminded of such audience favorites as
I spoke with the director this week about why
"Kids are whole people," says Davis. "They need to be addressed as caring human beings. Louis's talent as a writer is that he understands how to get into the inner feelings of kids. Most kids feel fairly insecure about themselves. They want to feel like they are a part of something. What happens in the story is that kids who were feeling left out find each other and help bring the whole group of kids to be more understanding of each other."
Sachar had more than just the experiences of young readers in mind, and that is why grownups enjoy the book—and the movie—alongside their kids. "They're provocative stories," Davis explains. "
It seems strange that such rewarding all-ages entertainment is so rare on the big screen. Perhaps directors should keep a closer eye on children's literature. Davis remarks: "
Everybody? Doesn't the film focus mainly on boys?
"It does, but, when you think about it, the story is also driven by women." He's right. Madame Zeroni, a sort of wicked witch played by Eartha Kitt, sets things in motion by cursing the Yelnats family. Kissin' Kate Barlow, given grace and guts by Patricia Arquette, becomes an outlaw when local law enforcement turns against Sam, her true love, the kindhearted handyman played by
Davis admits that he resisted some coaxing to simplify the adaptation. "There were some people when we first started financing the film who said, 'Well, we'll do the story of the camp but we won't do the story of the family.' And we said, 'That's ridiculous. That's what the book is all about!' We wanted to stay close to what Louis had done in developing the relationships between the boys. I wanted to keep some subtle things in there. We didn't lose too much—we lost a couple of things that were in the book, but we also added some things that weren't in the book. Overall, Louis and I were very happy with how it turned out. People are coming out of the theatres [glad] that it's so close to the book."
Davis hopes viewers will come away considering other themes and questions as well. "Because of what we are going through right now in this country—thinking about what it means to be Americans—we realize that we are all immigrants at one point or another. Everybody has come to America and struggled, whether as a pilgrim or a slave or someone who came over last week from Mexico. That's part of what makes America great—we come together and work together to make a country where people care about each other."
Along with the earnest nature of its parables,
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) says, "Several characters are one-dimensional. The feel-good ending is a crowd-pleaser that so ties up every story strand it's hard to overlook the movie's far-fetched coincidences."
Megan Basham (Christian Spotlight) argues, "
J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) complains, "The movie reduces Sachar's subtle meditation to a simplistic tale. None of the book's sublimity reaches the screen. The little ones might laugh, but the adults will be bored."
I certainly was not bored—it was the most enjoyable film I've seen so far in 2003. My full review is at Looking Closer. And it seemed clear to me that the story was not meant for extremely young children. I agree with Davis that it feels right for ages 8 and up.
Loren Eaton (Focus on the Family) did not find it simplistic at all: "
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) agrees: "
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) adds: "The qualities that make
Holly McClure (Crosswalk) raves that
Michael Medved (Crosswalk) says, "The movie remains as dark, strange, engaging and wildly inventive as the book. Davis … displays unexpected flair with this very different material, infusing the story with energetic integrity while giving full rein to its bizarre, cartoonish and humorous elements." He concludes, "The themes of fate and inheritance and mysterious connection give the movie a surprisingly strong resonance by its conclusion."
Movieguide's critic appreciates the moral resonance of the story, but turns in one strong objection: "For those who believe in the biblical mandate against [curses], it is not appropriate, and it will alienate many people who are the very audience for the movie." Mary Draughon (Preview) also give the film "a marginal acceptability rating due to its witchcraft element."
Scripture does indeed forbid us from consulting spiritualists and casting curses. But it certainly does not forbid telling stories that show the villainy and foolishness of such endeavors—the Bible has such stories within its own pages.
Mainstream critics have had mixed responses. CNN's David Germain says, "Beyond the book's fans … it's hard to imagine who will want to see it.
But Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) writes, "I walked in expecting a movie for thirteensomethings, and walked out feeling challenged and satisfied."
J. R. Jones (Chicago Reader) agrees: "For a kids' tale, it has a surprisingly sophisticated narrative structure. For a Disney movie,
Director Andrew Davis's complex and rewarding new family adventure film
Similarly, Christian columnist Terry Mattingly finds echoes of God's grace throughout the film.
Cliff Vaughn (Ethics Daily) echoes the praise of other religious press critics for Ed Solomon's sobering drama
And Steve Lansingh (The Film Forum) writes, "
Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) praises Nick Nolte's "captivating title performance" in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief. But he gives the movie bad marks: "While it's fine on seedy atmosphere and stunning Riviera visuals, eventually its ever murkier narrative turns wear the audience out—and may leave them puzzled by the morally ambiguous conclusion."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) cautions viewers not to stumble into Laurel Canyon, which he says "espouses that most dubious of chestnuts—that self-fulfillment hinges on jettisoning social convention and embracing libertinism. This view … liberation via libertinism … has grown a bit long in the tooth. Its proponents have been singing the same tune since film critics wore bowler hats. Thankfully, this disagreeable film does little to bolster the attractiveness of their argument."
Mike Furches (Hollywood Jesus) sat through a new slasher-thriller and writes, "If you are expecting a great art film, compelling story, inspirational movie or entertaining experience, don't go see
He does, however, find a worthwhile observation in what he sums up as a dispiriting film. The film's portrayal of a mean-spirited church insensitive to the lost is, to Furches, partly the fault of the church in the real world. "While this movie is hard to watch, the reality … should hit home for most Christians who refuse to be a point of light to the world around them. We have not done a good job of showing the world Jesus' love by being honest examples of that love. It seems to me that when seeing this type of portrayal … at the very least we owe someone an apology and … an effort to start living a life that will change the message. Instead we tend to criticize and ostracize the world for being what they should be without Christ."
Movieguide's critic says the flick "lacks inspiration. The movie continues the terrible trend of contemporary horror movies, where the evil mad killers defeat all of their evil victims, no matter how hard they try to escape. The movie also contains plenty of strong foul language, many gory images, and nudity."
Paul Chinn (Relevant) confesses, "I'm a fan of cheesy, shoddy horror. The bad acting, the laughable special effects and the campy dialogue can make for some very memorable film viewing." But now that he has seen Rob Zombie's bloodfest, he writes, "