Josh Bell

Novelist Carl Hiaasen is known equally for off-kilter characters and dedication to environmentalism, both of which figure heavily in his witty crime novels. Hoot adapts a book Hiaasen wrote for a younger audience, and while the environmental message remains loud and clear, the rest of the writer's typically sharp stylistic touches have been undeniably dulled.

Set in the traditional Hiaasen milieu of South Florida (specifically, fictional town Coconut Cove), Hoot follows middle-schooler Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman), a Montana transplant who yearns for the mountains of his home state. Roy endures the typical new-kid-in-school travails—he's picked on by a bully and befriended by a weirdo—but his life really takes a turn when he encounters a mysterious barefoot boy nicknamed Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley) and his soccer-playing stepsister Beatrice (Brie Larson). Mullet Fingers is a pint-sized environmental terrorist, using vandalism and harassment to halt the construction of a pancake house on land inhabited by burrowing owls.

It's your typical Hiaasen plot, with peripheral characters including a bumbling but kindhearted local cop (Luke Wilson) and a rage-filled construction foreman (Tim Blake Nelson). Maybe these supporting players had some zest on the page, but screenwriter and director Wil Shriner, a TV veteran, smooths them into Nickelodeon-style cuddly caricatures, and they've only got personality in contrast to the dull kids at the center of the plot.

That plot is sweet and mild enough that kids may come away from the film amused, but it lacks the bite of Hiaasen's novels for adults, and even the environmental message is reduced to something along the lines of, "Don't hurt the cute little owls." The machinations of the evil developers are exceptionally sloppy, and the resolution at the film's end is rather rushed. At the same time, Hoot, from family-friendly production company Walden Media, has none of the shrillness of many mainstream family films, and if it's not exactly cutting edge, at least it's pleasant and harmless.

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