Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/05/06 13:41:44

"Fairly entertaining, despite the evil that is Jimmy Buffett"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

The new family film “Hoot” contains three elements that I generally try to avoid if at all possible, both in movies and in real life. It features adorable little animals–in this case, a group of endangered owls–that are called upon to be as photogenic as possible when it is so required. It features a bunch of equally adorable kids who spend their time foiling the plans of the various evil-but-dopey adults lurking about and saving the day for one and all. Finally, and perhaps most punishing, it is layered from one end to the other with the musical stylings of that most loathsome of creatures, Jimmy Buffett–a man who has built a musical career and frozen shrimp empire on convincing doughy middle-aged white people that donning an ugly Hawaiian shirt and getting drunk makes them ever so hip and rebellious. And yet, instead of the dreary sitcom with an unendurable soundtrack that I expected, I was surprised and a little delighted to discover that the film is actually a sly and very funny little charmer that is smart enough for the kids and entertaining enough for the adults.

Set in a weirdo little Florida town–the kind of place where the arrival of a franchise pancake house is the focus of local attention–the story begins with the arrival of newcomer Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman), a boy whose parents move around so often that he is about to become the new kid in school for the sixth time in eight years. While getting pushed around on the school bus on his first day of class, Roy looks out the window and spots a strange boy (Cody Linley) running barefoot in the streets before disappearing. Roy tries to learn more about the kid but winds up running afoul of fellow student Beatrice (Brie Larson) in the process. Eventually, he learns that Beatrice and the barefoot lad with cheek of tan, known as Mullet Fingers, are step-siblings, the latter has run away from boarding school and is secretly living on the beach and that they are involved in a series of sabotage efforts in order to prevent the building of the aforementioned pancake house as it is set to be built over the burrows of some endangered owls. Together, the three try to stop the construction by any means necessary (including a gator in the port-a-potty)while evading inquisitive parents, a bumbling cop (Luke Wilson) and an even-more-bumbling security guard (Tim Blake Nelson).

It may come as a surprise to some of you to learn that “Hoot,” despite its family leanings, is actually based on a book by the great comic-crime novelist Carl Hiaasen, a man who revels in lurid plots and lunatic characters spouting hilarious dialogue set in a Florida teeming with corruption, pointless land development and weirdo humor (including the use of a baby gator as a lie detector). The funny thing about the film is that all of those elements are firmly in place here, despite the family-friendly thrust, in doses that viewers of all ages will be able to easily grasp. Little kids will quickly get the idea that if the pancake house goes up, the cute little owls will die while the adults will be laughing uproariously as the sight of the town’s mayor (Robert Wagner–yes, Robert Wagner) proudly announcing in a speech that the building of such an establishment will bring in over 12 new jobs into the community.

Better yet, writer-director Will Shriner manages to avoid a lot of the pitfalls of films of this genre. The kids are spunky and adorable, of course, but they aren’t cloying or obnoxious. The cop played by Luke Wilson is bumbling but he isn’t too bumbling and he lends a nicely off-kilter presence to the proceedings–I liked the moment when he apologizes for being later by saying that he was working on “a 443 that turned into a 961" and then helpfully offers to explain what a “443" is. The bad guys are mean but always on a realistic level (although I can only presume that the chief villain is named Mr. Muckle in honor of another famous child-hater, W.C. Fields) and he is brought down thanks to the kids’ smarts instead of his own stupidity. And even though those owls are as cute as can be, the film doesn’t shamelessly exploit it by bringing them out every few minutes–their appearances are short and sparing.

Although it isn’t a great film, mostly because of the annoying musical contributions of Buffett (who also appears briefly as a science teacher), “Hoot” is a good one with a lot of humor and heart. You will notice that in the first paragraph of this review, I referred to it as a family film and not as a kiddie film. That is because it, unlike such kid-only titles as “Ice Age 2" and “The Wild,” is funny and entertaining enough to appeal to viewers whose age has reached double-digits. Of course, it probably won’t make half as much money as “Ice Age 2" but I can almost guarantee that those who see it are likely to remember it long after that filmed deal fades from memory.

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