Ladder 49: PICK


Hoot: PASS


The Spirit of St. Louis: PICK


Content advisory:

Hoot: Mild depictions of bullying; a few mild crudities; ambiguous presentation of eco-sabotage (teens & up). Ladder 49: Drinking-related humor; recurring objectionable language including an instance of profanity; some sexual references and a premarital sexual encounter (nothing explicit); a borderline sacrilegious hazing stunt; some intense firefighting scenes (adults). The Spirit of St. Louis: Aviation hazards (kids & up).

Three years ago, Walden Media released its freshman film Holes, one of the sharpest, most satisfying live-action family films in years. Walden’s latest movie, an adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot (new on DVD), has many of the same ingredients as the earlier film, including deadly reptiles, bullying and juvenile delinquents, and young protagonists wrestling with a mystery involving an area of land with a secret. Alas, the similarities only serve to underscore how far short Hoot falls from the high standard set by Holes. Written and directed by actor Wil Shriner, Hoot dumbs down a story that was no Holes to begin with.

Shriner covers the events, but misses the tone and the feel that make them work, to a point, in the book. A mysterious, larger-than-life Huck Finn-esque hero in the book comes off in the film more an ordinary juvenile delinquent — and an eco-terrorist. A rather sympathetic cop in the book becomes a buffoon barely a step above Enos in “The Dukes of Hazzard,” while other grownups, including the hero’s parents, suffer similar downgrades.

Since Holes, Walden has continued to produce honorable family-film adaptations of acclaimed children’s books, though none in quite the same league as Holes. Their biggest hit, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, was also their biggest departure from the source material — a middle-of-the-road Hollywood retelling in which Lewis’ artistry and religious themes were somewhat diluted, if still partly honored. Now, for the first time, Walden has made a family film adaptation not worth watching. The dismal possibility of Holes having been something of a fluke is getting harder to ignore.

Heartfelt, predictable and surprisingly poignant, Ladder 49 is an unabashed tribute to the heroism of firefighters that eschews the silly arsonist subplot that bogged down Backdraft, preferring instead a simple character-driven story arc following a rookie (Joaquin Phoenix) as he learns the ropes, starts a family and faces crises at work and home.

A strongly Catholic milieu is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, there are church weddings, baptisms, funerals and Christmas Masses. On the other, the hero and heroine, who will later marry and have children, wind up in bed after a night of heavy drinking, and a borderline sacrilegious hazing stunt simulates the sacrament of penance. Ladder 49 doesn’t ask us to accept its characters as saints, but it does argue that, whatever their faults, they deserve to be honored as heroes for their actions in the line of duty.

Written by Lewis Colick (October Sky) and directed by Jay Russell (Tuck Everlasting), Ladder 49 ultimately rejects the one cliché that Hollywood is most fond of, and it is this possibly unexpected move that elevates the film to more than a feel-good action picture about the real-life heroes who run into burning buildings while everyone else is running out. Ladder 49 will make you cry and make you grateful.

New on DVD, The Spirit of St. Louis stars Jimmy Stewart as Charles Lindbergh in Billy Wilder’s tribute to the aviator’s groundbreaking 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight. Based on Lindbergh’s autobiography, the film intercuts the famous flight with flashbacks depicting the aviator’s barnstorming and airmail days. Though nearly twice the age of his 25-year-old character, Stewart’s performance brings Lindy’s all-American, can-do spirit persuasively to life.