I like Carl Hiaasen's quirky, clever Florida crime novels, such as Sick Puppy and Stormy Weather. And yet, unlike Elmore Leonard's books, no one has succeeded in making a good movie from Hiaasen's work. (I won't go near the movie adaptation of Striptease myself.)
I hoped that Hoot, adapted from Hiaasen's book for young adults, would finally be that successful movie. Hoot isn't a bad movie by any means, and compared to other contemporary children's films it is practically a masterpiece. But it doesn't possess that chaotic hilarity I associate with Hiaasen's best writing. Even though the characters do outrageous things -- perhaps because of this -- Hoot is a safe, slight film. A gun in the book becomes a baseball bat in the movie. A kid's intentional trap for a school bully becomes a happy accident. Admittedly, Hiaasen's book Hoot is a diluted version of his usual writing for grown-ups, but the book is better able to convey the message that children can realistically find ways to help with environmental and other issues. Hoot's storyline is the same in the book and the film. Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) is the new kid in a small Florida town and misses his previous home in Montana. One day, while he's getting beaten up on the school bus, he spots a strange boy running barefoot. Roy decides he wants to solve the mystery of the barefoot kid, and gets pulled into a scheme to save burrowing owls who live on the future site of a chain pancake house. He also becomes entangled with the school's biggest bully.
In the book, Roy tends to be Everykid, the character who acts like we might expect a kid to act. He has a talent for negotiation and persuasive speech. He doesn't want to break the law but he does want to help save the endangered owls. Although the "barefoot kid," Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley), tries crazy schemes to keep the construction company from bulldozing the owls, few of those schemes are destructive. He steals the site's survey stakes and fills in the ground, and the police point out that this isn't actually vandalism since nothing was broken or destroyed. Mullet Fingers' activities become more outlaw as the book progresses, but Roy tries to convince him to use less dangerous tactics.
In the movie, however, Roy does things that we would not expect normal kids to do. On his bike, he flees a pursuing police car. He can flip through a stack of building-permit paperwork and find just the information he needs, whereas in the book he had trouble figuring out what to look for. Roy and Mullet Fingers boost a small boat and cruise around happily while Jimmy Buffet music plays in the background, in a montage that is practically an ad for Florida. These unbelievable actions and plot twists undermine the message that kids can help protect the environment, because the situation is so unrealistic and over-the-top.
The young actors in Hoot are convincing even in the silliest situations, although Mullet Fingers and Beatrice seem older than I pictured them while reading the book. Brie Larson seems a little too pretty to play a character nicknamed Beatrice the Bear. In the book, Beatrice actually bites a hole in Roy's bicycle tire to give him an excuse for being late for dinner. In the movie, she hands him a rusty nail -- there is no way that this Beatrice would chomp a tire.
The film's comedy moments are provided mostly by the older actors. I liked Luke Wilson's portrayal of Officer Delinko, the ambitious but not-very-bright policeman. Giving him the little electric cart to drive was one of the movie's more inspired moments. His Detecting Made Simple book, however, is straight out of Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. Tim Blake Nelson is a treat to watch as Curly, the put-upon construction foreman. Jimmy Buffett, who provided much of the film's music, has a cute role as Roy's marine biology teacher, and I believe I caught a glimpse of veteran character actor Robert Donner as Kalo the killer dog trainer. Carl Hiaasen even appears in a cameo as an assistant to the pancake-house vice president.
Like the rest of the movie, the music is too saccharine and obvious. I like Jimmy Buffett just fine, but his songs in this movie ("Barefootin'", "Good Guys Win") are a little too precious. Buffett covers "Werewolves of London" briefly and in that moment, I wondered what Hoot would have been like if Warren Zevon were still with us and had provided songs for the movie. (Zevon and Hiaasen were good friends.) Hoot desperately needs a little edginess, whether in the music or in the script.
One annoying and completely unnecessary aspect of Hoot was Roy's voice-over narration. I can only assume it was added to help kids understand what was going on, but I think the plot would have been just as easy to follow without the narration.
Hoot is writer/director Wil Shriner's first feature film -- his prior experience is directing sitcoms like Frasier and Becker. Hoot plays like an inoffensive sitcom with an ineffective message to add gravity and meaning. Still, at the Saturday morning preview screening I attended, the kids in the audience were attentive and rarely restless. I recommended the movie to my sister for my niece. It's a harmless and entertaining movie, and you needn't worry that your kids will run off and commit acts of eco-terrorism afterwards. But I am still waiting for that great adaptation of a Carl Hiaasen novel that we grown-ups can enjoy.