- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

Though its stars are young teenagers, this cheerful but politically timid adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s 2003 novel is meant to appeal to the “tween” set. It centers on Roy Eberhardt, played by Logan Lerman of the WB drama “Jack & Bobby.” Roy’s father holds an important but unspecified Justice Department job, which keeps the family on the move.

When Roy arrives in the Florida Gulf Coast town of Coconut Cove, his experiences are typical for a movie new kid: He is beset by the school bully, befriended by the school spaz and walks in late to his first class, where he’s singled out for attention because his clothes are weirdly out of step with local fashions.

Logan plays Roy as a gangly but earnest and centered youth. Yet upon catching sight of the barefoot and lightning-fast mystery kid played by 16-year-old actor Cody Linley, his curiosity is aroused, and a game of cat and mouse is on. No sooner is Roy on his trail than he runs afoul of tough-girl tomboy Beatrice Leep, known to classmates as “Beatrice the Bear,” and played with a bit of a hard edge by pop singer Brie Larson.

Our mystery kid is a military school runaway, hiding out from his parents in an abandoned boat, and is known as Mullet Fingers, because of his peculiar ability to pluck wriggling fish from the shallows of a nearby marsh. Beatrice is his stepsister. The two are on a mission to protect a vacant lot from the predations of the Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House chain, because they are callously building on a burrowing owl habitat.

Mullet Fingers is engaged in a one-man war of attrition with site foreman Curly Branitt (Tim Blake Nelson), keeping construction behind schedule through various acts of vandalism (or eco-terrorism, as some might have it). These range from the annoying (pulling up surveyor’s posts) to the anarchic (spray-painting the windows of a squad car occupied by a bumbling police officer played by Luke Wilson) to the potentially dangerous (stashing a small alligator in a portable lavatory used by the rusticated Mr. Brannit).

But the villain of the piece is Chuck Muckle (Clark Gregg), the regional manager of the pancake chain, who dreams of opening his record-breaking 100th franchise. Mr. Gregg, perhaps best known for his recurring role as an earnest and humble FBI agent on “West Wing,” plays Muckle with cartoonish malevolence. Surely Muckle must be the only pancake house middle manager in world history to have a chopper at his disposal — one that he threatens to “fire up” during a telephonic tirade.

While the shots of Florida’s coastal marshes and of the very cute, and apparently good-natured, burrowing owls give the film an eco-friendly veneer, the script also includes a stern and well-received lecture on property rights from Roy’s father. Indeed, the plot hinges not so much on whether it is morally right to build on animal habitat, but whether a certain megalomaniacal chain restaurant executive fudged or didn’t fudge a legal filing.

Indeed, “Hoot” lacks ideological teeth of any kind. Most of the anarchy at play here is of the sort to be found in a “Harry Potter” movie — one rooted in the premise that two school-age boys and one school-age girl, if sufficiently plucky and attractive, can thwart any foe.

** 1/2

TITLE: “Hoot”

RATING: PG (destruction of property, indifference to authority, very mild violence)

CREDITS: Written by Wil Shriner and Carl Hiaasen and directed by Wil Shriner. Cinematography by Michael Chapman

RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes

WEB SITE: www.hootmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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