Whooo's for "Hoot"?
Special to The Seattle Times
Would Huckleberry Finn have been an ecoterrorist in the 21st century?
Quite possibly, according to "Hoot," an agreeable family film that puts a folkloric face on property vandalism committed in the interest of protecting endangered wildlife. Based on a Carl Hiaasen novel for middle-school readers, "Hoot" is a quirky comedy with a familiar strain of American mythos running through it: a love of the maverick outsider, in this case a fleet-footed boy named Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley), who rejects civilization for the untamed spirit of nature.
That's fine, but it might have been nice — since the story deals with a prickly, topical, development-vs.-conservation theme — if there had been a little moral ambiguity layered into Mullet's environmental mischief. "Hoot" presents a sensitive issue dismissively, in comic tones of black and white.
Logan Lerman ("The Butterfly Effect") plays thoughtful, somewhat-guarded adolescent Roy Eberhardt, whose father (Neil Flynn) has just moved his family from Montana to Coconut Cove, Fla. The new kid in school, Roy is harassed by a dim-witted thug (Eric Phillips) and snarled at by a cute but abrasive soccer player, Beatrice (Brie Larson).
But Roy is captivated by sightings in the community of Mullet Fingers. Under a mane of surfer-blond locks, the latter appears from nowhere, running like the wind, then vanishes. Roy snoops for information but is mysteriously warned off by Beatrice.
A self-reliant runaway for whom the Everglades and other environmental wonders are home, Mullet has declared war on plans to build a pancake-restaurant franchise on a site occupied by "burrowing owls": owls that nest underground and aren't easily seen. Using snakes, baby alligators, spray paint and other means of fear and destruction, Mullet vexes the project manager (Tim Blake Nelson) and an accident-prone if heart-of-gold cop (Luke Wilson).
Eventually, Roy plays Tom Sawyer to Mullet's Huck (making Beatrice the no-nonsense partner Mark Twain hadn't thought of), and the save-the-owls crusade picks up speed.
The outcome is inevitable, but there are a few surprises: a supporting role for Key West singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett (who co-produced the movie and provides some tunes) as a marine-sciences teacher, and some tongue-in-cheek business by Robert Wagner as Coconut Cove's mayor.
Michael Chapman's postcard-gorgeous cinematography makes one want to pack for Florida right away. (When is hurricane season again?) Screenwriter-director Wil Shriner — yes, that Wil Shriner, the forgettable television personality who found success directing "Frasier" and other sitcoms — makes his feature debut with "Hoot." He keeps the material taut and wry (he's equally good at understating visual gags and underscoring sarcasm).
But while "Hoot's" pro-environment message to kids is certainly worthy, the unquestioning, pro-vigilante angle doesn't sit entirely well.
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company