Adapted from a popular children's book by Carl Hiaasen, Hoot is the latest film from Walden Media, a production company dedicated to putting the "family" back in the phrase "family entertainment." After getting its start producing relatively modest movies like Holes and Because of Winn-Dixie, Walden entered the big leagues last December with the first entry in The Chronicles of Narnia franchise, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The company has another potential blockbuster waiting in the wings this year, a live-action version of Charlotte's Web that's due in theatres around Christmastime. But Hoot is more like a Winn-Dixie than a Narnia; this is a small story told with a minimum of fuss and a sharp eye towards keeping it clean. The strongest swear word heard in the film is "dang" and the most risqué moment comes when the young hero's love interest spends the night on his bedroom floor without his parents' permission. It goes without saying that the furthest these two get is a couple of longing glances-forget first base, they aren't even in the on-deck circle.
Filmed on location in Florida, Hoot follows recently transplanted Montanan Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman), whose family traded the open range for the sandy seacoast of the Sunshine State. Roy isn't happy about the move, particularly since being the new kid in town makes him a prime target for sadistic bullies. But he soon discovers that the sleepy small town of Coconut Cove may hold some surprises after all. For instance, every morning on his bus ride to school, Roy sees a barefoot kid running like mad towards an unknown destination. Intrigued, he decides to follow this mystery boy and stumbles upon a construction site where a new pancake house is being built. As it turns out, this land is also home to a family of endangered burrowing owls, a fact that the builders have chosen to hide from the public. The running boy-who answers to the improbable nickname of Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley)-knows all about the owls and he's taken it upon himself to halt construction by committing minor acts of vandalism under the nose of dunderheaded foreman Curly (Tim Blake Nelson). Roy decides to help Mullet Fingers in his mission, a choice that puts him at odds with his parents and a well-meaning, if slow-witted, police officer (Luke Wilson), but wins him the admiration of his new friend's pretty sister, Beatrice (Brie Larson).
Parents generally don't bring their kids to films like Hoot expecting originality, and the movie doesn't try to dodge convention. The plot unfolds entirely as expected, right down to the big climax where all of the characters assemble at the construction site so the three kids can prove the existence of these owls once and for all. Lessons are learned, pratfalls are had and, to quote the Jimmy Buffett tune that plays over the closing credits, the good guys win. It's hard to hate a movie that essentially just wants to teach kids to respect the environment (a message certain adults could stand to hear again), especially when that lesson is imparted in such an upbeat manner. But Hoot is also too bland and clumsy to wholeheartedly embrace. Most of the broad comedy (like Wilson repeatedly backing his police cruiser into a tree) falls flat and there's no sense of urgency to the proceedings. In his quest to make the film as inoffensive as possible, writer-director Wil Shriner drains the characters of any real personality. Roy and his friends in particular come across as an adult's idea of what tweens today should be like rather than what they actually are like. It's just another reminder of how rare it is to see a family film like E.T., which acknowledged that even good kids will sometimes call each other "penis breath." In the end, one has to wonder if Walden Media is really making movies for kids...or for their parents.