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|Kevin Krock, editor|
Before this movie hit the theaters back in April 2003, I have to admit that I had never heard of the Newberry award-winning book by Louis Sachar, on which the movie is based. I am sure it has to do with the fact that my children are not yet old enough to read the book, and it was published well after my reading material became mostly technical journals. However, those of you who have teenagers or preteens are probably at least somewhat familiar with the best selling adventure of Stanley Yelnats.
This quirky yet poignant story follows Stanley (Shia LaBeouf of Even Stevens), a typical teenager who happens to be dogged by bad luck stemming from an ancient family curse, and presents his affirming adventures under difficult circumstances. In the beginning, he gets caught up in a set of unfortunate circumstances and is sentenced to spend time at Camp Green Lake, a work camp for troubled boys.
As Stanley soon finds out, there is nothing green about this desert camp, and there is no lake or natural water for miles. Rather, he and his tentmates, Squid, Armpit, ZigZag, Magnet, X-Ray, and Zero are forced by the camp's director, known only as The Warden (Sigourney Weaver of Aliens, Galaxy Quest), and her right-hand men Mr. Sir (Jon Voight of Mission: Impossible, Midnight Cowboy) and Dr. Pendanski (Tim Blake Nelson of O Brother Where Art Thou), to dig holes in order to build character.
The whole thing strikes Stanley as a bit odd, and through a series of carefully placed story flashbacks and clues, he and his campmates realize that there is something more to all the hole digging. However, the boys must stick together and outwit the Warden, Mr. Sir, and Dr. Pendanski as they attempt to discover what is really hidden in the desert.
With the screenplay written by Sachar, the movie follows the heart of the book fairly closely, and the cast does a wonderful job of delivering these memorable charaters. For newcomers, the movie may seem to be a bit disjointed, but towards the end, everything starts coming together and making sense. Then, the end ties everything up nicely but you need to stick through the whole movie. Trust me. For the most part, this movie, while it is rated PG, is pretty well suited for the whole family, but toddlers and young children may not find this movie as appealing as a good animated feature.
For what is regarded as a standard edition DVD, this disc sports almost 30 minutes of extras. First off, there are six deleted scenes, which amounts to about six minutes of extra footage, and while it is rather clear why they were cut, they are fun to watch. Another goodie of note is the short but interesting nine-minute making-of featurette, called Digging the First Hole. It gives a rather sweeping overview of the production, but it helps you get an idea of how Andrew Davis and Louis Sachar worked together with the cast to bring Sachar's story to the screen. There are several interesting interview snippets and behind the scenes footage, and like most of Disney's short documentaries, it is a nice compliment to the other bonus material but is not quite satisfying because of the lack of depth.
There is an additional featurette called The Boys of D-Tent, which focuses on the young actors playing the troubled boys at the camp. It reveals a lot of interesting and humorous information that only the boys could provide. The one-and-a-half minute gag reel is a perfect match with this featurette, and it highlights the camaraderie between the actors, which helps make the movie work so well.
Probably the most interesting goodies on this disc are the two full-length commentaries. There is one provided by several of the young actors, including Shia La Beouf, Khleo Thomas, Jake M. Smith, and Max Kasch. I was a bit wary of listening to a bunch of teenagers talk about their movie, but even with its expected teenage tendencies, it is a funny and informative look at what the boys endured to make the movie. Young fans of the book and the movie will definitely enjoy listening to it.
On a much more serious note, the commentary with director Andrew Davis and author-screenwriter Louis Sachar is much more along the lines of a traditional commentary. It does have its occasional humorous notes, but it is generally an informative and interesting narration of how the two realized Sachar's literary vision on film. Compared to the boys' commentary, parents will probably find this one a bit more interesting than their children will, but it does a great job of describing why certain things in the book were massaged to work better in the film.
Both commentaries are worth listening to, and what I ended up doing was switching between the two while watching and rewatching a particular scene. It takes a lot of time to watch the movie all the way through that way, but you get a very complete view of what went into making the movie.
The Video, Audio, and Interface
This movie is available in both anamorphic widescreen and full-screen versions, so be careful when you pick this one up at the store. I am sure both have equally pristine video transfers, but because of the sweeping desert cinematography, the anamorphic widescreen version is definitely the one to get. As I mentioned, the THX-certified video transfer looks great, and the colors, detail, and dark shadows are all right on target throughout the movie, as expected.
As for the audio, it is primarily dialogue and focused in the center channel, but it is crisp, clean, and easily understandable. For those of you with surround systems, there are plenty of surround effects to keep things interesting, and most of the musical cues are nicely spread around the soundstage. This disc will definitely look and sound good on any home theater.
The icing on the cake is the user interface, which is perfectly suited for this disc. The main and bonus features menus feature a great combination of clips of the movie, musical accompaniment, and additional animation, and it fits the theme of the movie perfectly. All subsequent menus feature at least some music and animated transitions. The menus are easy to navigate, and demonstrate Disney's ability to create compelling DVD user interfaces.
The Final Evaluation
This disc not only features a very nice video and audio transfer of this quirky movie but it also sports a decent set of bonus material and a great user interface. Fans of the book and movie will find this disc worth a close look, especially at discount store prices. Otherwise, this disc is well worth a rental for those of you unfamiliar with the story and looking for an entertaining and moving movie for the whole family.
Kevin Doc Krock is been a long-time animation buff and home theater fan. He's been following the rise of the DVD format in the home market since its introduction, and he hopes to help you make the most of your family's home theater viewing time and video collections.
You can contact Kevin here.
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