From the ecological perspective, this family flick may have its heart in the right place, but in terms of intellect it leaves much to be desired. Though the picture shows an almost desperate desire to educate its audience, especially the younger members, about the importance of environmental sensitivity and, in particular, the need for each citizen to protect endangered species, it does so in a heavy-handed, even irresponsible fashion; and from a purely cinematic perspective it’s not appreciably better than a kid-friendly cable telefilm. The original 1963 “Flipper,” as outdated as it now seems, was actually more subtle in its message, and was just about as technically adept.
The central figure in the picture is Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman), a middle-school kid who’s forced to move from Montana to Florida when his dad (Neil Flynn), a Justice Department lawyer, is re-posted. In his new school he immediately falls afoul of the campus bully Dana (Eric Phillips), who beats him up on the bus, and of Beatrice (Brie Larson), a surly soccer-star girl who’s oddly angered by his interest in a blond kid he sees racing barefoot down the street. Meanwhile a goofy local cop (Luke Wilson) is constantly stymied in his efforts to find out who’s obstructing the efforts of a hapless foreman (Tim Blake Nelson) to plot out the intended site for a new pancake house. It turns out that the mysterious figure upsetting the pancake plan is that blond fellow, who’s actually Beatrice’s brother Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley), a runaway from the boarding school he was sent to. And the reason is a worthy one: the land is inhabited by a flock of burrowing owls, a protected species that the project will force from the area. Eventually Roy gets involved with bro and sis, and saves the day even when the pancake chain’s evil head honcho (Clark Gregg) shows up determined to get rid of the birds and build his restaurant. And this despite the fact that he has to deal with repeated threats from that bully and the scrutiny of that cop.
The basic problem with all this is that even for a kid flick, the dumbness quotient is way too high. The means that the villains have used to conceal the fact that the real estate where the pancake house is to be built is inhabited by an endangered species, for example, is simply to have ripped a page out of the copy of the environmental impact report lodged in the county courthouse–and nobody ever noticed until Roy does. Even the smallest tyke is likely to find that pretty implausible. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the stupidity of the adults across the board in “Hoot.” Roy’s parents, for instance–played by Flynn and Kiersten Warren–are pretty much oblivious to their son’s concerns (they don’t even notice when Beatrice joins him in his room one night–entirely platonically, of course), and their attitude toward the bully and his mother–both obvious nut-cases–is ridiculously benign. The town mayor (Robert Wagner) is a complete dunderhead. So are the characters played by Wilson and Nelson, though they both turn out nice.
All of which puts the onus on the kids, of course, and they take actions which are actually pretty dangerous and anti-social, rather than–for example–contacting groups that would certainly have intervened if asked. The idea that the only way to take on capitalist corruption is what amounts to environmental guerrilla activity isn’t exactly a responsible one. Even the offhanded bits of comic business are weirdly miscalculated. We’re supposed to find it hysterical, for instance, that Roy is hit in the head with a gold ball not once but twice. Is that really something to laugh about? Or again, when Mullet Fingers is attempting to scare Roy off, he sticks him immediately beside a pile of poisonous snakes. What’s the lesson kids should take from that?
But even if you set aside all of this, “Hoot” isn’t very good. The locations are nice, though the cinematography by Michael Chapman is hardly sophisticated; but the acting is on a very rudimentary level, even if the three young leads are personable enough. And you have to sympathize with the adults forced to play so dumb, especially Wilson. (But then he was in “My Dog Skip,” one of the best live-action children’s movies of recent years, so perhaps it’s a law of karma that he must also appear in another on the opposite side of the quality spectrum.) One also has to put up with some songs provided by Jimmy Buffet, who also produced–and who even appears in the movie as a teacher at Roy’s school. (He shouldn’t plan on an acting career.)
“Hoot” was adapted from a young peoples’ novel by Carl Hiassen, who mostly writes successful pro-ecology comic thrillers for adults. On the evidence of this movie, he’d be well advised to stick to the latter. While champions of the spotted owl might be entranced by the movie, young audiences are more apt to be bored; and their parents might have a legitimate cause for concern.