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Hoot (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 05 May 2006
“Hoot” is sincere about its central idea—that animals and their habitats are worth protecting—and has an able cast, but it’s uninflected, and has the same steady pace from beginning to end. The story but not director Wil Shriner (the comic) lets us know that events are reaching a climax, but the peak moment passes almost unnoticed.

Carl Hiaasen wasn’t happy with “Striptease” (the 1996 Demi Moore vehicle), based on his novel, and until now has refused offers to turn his best-selling, and very entertaining, novels into more movies. After writing a series of mostly comic crime novels set in his beloved Florida, he tried his hand at writing a book for kids. “Hoot” was a best-seller, and he recently published “Flush,” another book aimed at youngsters. All of his novels, whether aimed at adults or kids, have strong ecological subtexts, and so does “Hoot.”

Teenaged Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) has had to move many times as his father changes jobs around the country. He loved the most recent location, Montana (beautiful shots of the state open the movie), and isn’t happy to move to the flat Gulf Coast of Florida. He’s immediately the bus-ride target of a big fat bully, and snickered at as a “cowgirl” by most of the other kids.

Even as the bully is giving him grief, Roy is surprised to see, running barefoot past the bus, a long-haired boy about his own age—who clearly isn’t enrolled in his school. He also encounters Beatrice (Brie Larson), a lanky teenage girl who’s even tougher than the bully. Eventually, Roy and Beatrice form an initially wary friendship, and he learns that the barefooted runner is her stepbrother, whom she calls Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley).

Meanwhile, we also meet Curly (Tim Blake Nelson), a cranky redneck who’s annoyed that someone keeps pulling up the survey stakes on the property he’s guarding (or something—this isn’t clear). A branch of a chain of pancake restaurants is due to be built on the spot. Another unexplained element is why Curly is the only person on the site, but whatever.

Roy learns that it’s Mullet Fingers who’s been uprooting the stakes, flattening Curly’s tires and so forth. Several pairs of small burrowing owls make the site their home, and Mullet Fingers is trying to protect them. He could be the tree-dwelling, road-kill-eating former governor of Florida who turns up in several of Hiaasen’s adult novels.
While trying to deal with the bully and the change of location, Roy is drawn into the idea of saving the little owls. He and Mullet Fingers become friends, and the barefoot boy shows him the wonders of the central Florida Gulf Coast. Roy sees all kinds of birds, an alligator or two, even a manatee.

Meanwhile, Roy has to deal with Muckle (Clark Gregg), head of the marketing division of the pancake-house company. Also around is slightly hangdog local cop Delinko (Luke Wilson), who’s required to look after Curly’s interests even when he doesn’t agree with them. Delinko is curious about Roy, and tentatively befriends the boy.

Eventually, of course, things draw to a head as Muckle shows up at the site and tries to take over.

The issues are simple and clear, and there’s no doubt which side of the owl issue the movie takes. Lip service is given to the idea that the community might benefit from a new restaurant, but there’s also a touch of scoffing—near the end, local Mayor Grandy (a cameo-ing Robert Wagner) declares proudly that it will create twelve new jobs. But the filmmakers don’t have to provide equal time for opposing views; they’re out to provide fun and expose kids to their ideas.

The trouble is that sincerity isn’t enough. “Hoot” just doesn’t provide as much fun as intended. The dialogue is mildly witty, the characters are mildly colorful (hardly the wackos found in flocks in Hiaasen’s adult novels), the issue mildly presented. One thing “Hoot” could have used is a lot more footage of the little owls at the center of things. We see them peeking out of their burrows occasionally, and one is seen perched in a tree. That’s about it. They don’t even figure prominently in the peculiar film clips included in the end credits. The shots are simply scenes from the movie; not outtakes, not blown line readings, just scenes we’ve already watched.

On the other hand, “Hoot” tells an interesting story; the novel sold very well—Hiaasen reports he’s received more letters from its fans than his adult novels generated—and kids may want to see a faithful adaptation of a favorite book. More power to them. But the producers of this film also made “Holes” a few years ago, a more interesting and entertaining movie. “Hoot” is only like a well-made After School Special. (Do they still have After School Specials?)

Perhaps the weakness lies with the producers and their choice of director. Another director would have infused the scenes with more energy, would have staged action in a more stimulating manner. Jimmy Buffett provides several okay songs and was one of the producers. The other was veteran Frank Marshall, who produced the near-classic kids’ movie “Indian in the Cupboard” in 1995. Maybe he should have enlisted that film’s director, Frank Oz, to handle the reins on this one.

The movie is modestly entertaining, and it’s okay for kids of any age; they’ll probably have a good time, but it won’t be a memorable time.

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