When his family moves from Montana to a small Florida community, Roy (Logan Lerman) has trouble adjusting to his new surroundings. Fascinated by a barefoot runner he spies from his school bus, Roy heads into the woods and meets Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley), a runaway who spends his days trying to thwart a pancake restaurant corporation (fronted by the always shrill Clark Gregg) from building their 100th restaurant on a plot inhabited by burrowing owls. With help from the rebellious Beatrice (Brie Larson) and the dimwitted cop Delinko (Luke Wilson), Roy finds his purpose in these owls, hoping to stop the demolition before it's too late.
"Hoot" is a flavorless family film with lot on its mind, but no real insightful ideas on how to convey it. Based on the novel by noted Floridian conservationist Carl Hiaasen, "Hoot" is a clear-cut tale of animal welfare, coated lightly with themes of friendship and combating injustice. Compared to the average family film experience, it's wonderful to see a story that at least has something positive to give kids weaned on fart jokes and crotch-based comedy.
In the hands of writer/director Wil Shriner, "Hoot" stays frustratingly earthbound. A longtime vet of television, both in front of and behind the camera, Shriner keeps the ambition of his script very small, and paces it with the same lethargic movement that accompanies a blazingly humid Florida afternoon. "Hoot" has all the technique and emphasis of the average Disney Channel cable film, and Shriner can't seem to get the picture out of first gear. His efforts to spice up the action with slapstick backfire because he's hired Luke Wilson to be the comedian here, and the actor is no Jerry Lewis. He's not even Juliette Lewis, who I would've taken rather than watch Wilson try to sell zany absurdity with his increasingly irritating puppy dog face and three-margarita vocal speed.
Shriner is more assured with his young cast, who carry the film with more skill than any of the adults. The performances by Lerman, Larson, and Linley (they would make a great law firm) are unexpectedly sharp, partially because they're drawn as real kids, not cookie cutter iPod-n-skateboard punks, and also because the plot asks them to care about something real. Lerman especially impresses with his acting, believably emoting a real sense of passion with his owl protection mission and confidence in his entanglements with the local bully.
Also frustrating is Shriner's directorial scope, which does almost nothing with the endless beauty of Florida. The filmmaker sticks to his indoor and woodsy locations tightly, rarely opening up the film to let the sunshine in. Shriner leaves the soundtrack by Jimmy Buffett (who also co-stars) to do most of the heavy lifting in setting the Florida feeling, eventually coming down to a personal taste issue over Buffett's music. Personally, I think the singer's cover of Warren Zevon's "Werewolves of London" should be classified as a biohazard, but that's me.
In the final act, "Hoot" starts to act more as it was intended: as a stern lesson on the overdevelopment of Florida. Like a kissing cousin to the John Sayles film, "Sunshine State," "Hoot" has something to say about big business stomping in, looking to steal grandeur away in the pursuit of a buck. Still, it's hard to take "Hoot" that seriously, even when its heart is in the right place. Shriner just doesn't have the skills yet to turn lightweight scuffle into heavyweight preaching without bringing down the whole production.
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