Hoot is that rarest of things, a film adaptation of a popular kids' book that doesn't mess with success. It doesn't add in extra violence, T&A, or obnoxious references to instantly dated teen slang, sports, or trends. It doesn't rely heavily on a soundtrack of ephemeral pop hits. It's charming, socially relevant, clear of eye, and pure of morals. It's a great role model for future children's films. Too bad, then, that it's so damn dull.
Directed as flatly and sincerely as an afterschool special by Wil Shriner (making the leap to features after a low-key early-'90s acting career and a lower-key late-'90s TV-directing career), Hoot opens with 14-year-old actor Logan Lerman angsting ever-so-mildly over the latest of many moves to a new town and a new school. His lack of friends and the new-kid-harassing bully are irritating, but he quickly gets distracted by the sight of a teen about his age (Cody Linley) running barefoot around the neighborhood instead of heading off to school. Playing amateur detective gets Lerman in dutch with glowering tomboy Brie Larson, but eventually all three teens band together to protect a group of endangered burrowing owls from being plowed under by greedy pancake-house magnate Clark Gregg. Meanwhile, hapless construction-site manager Tim Blake Nelson and bumbling cop Luke Wilson provide minor comic relief by respectively channeling Don Knotts and Tim Conway.
Hoot's problems start with Lerman, a no-personality Everyboy whose harmless, helpful Super-Nice Guy act is pleasant but not particularly interesting. But the issues extend to the rest of the film, which follows the same bland, ploddingly paced, tension-free aesthetic. Shriner takes his source material seriously, even carefully adding rapturous scenes of Florida wildlife and soaring landscapes to channel the gushing hometown pride Carl Hiaasen injected into his bestselling novel. But Shriner fails to give it any real life, and the twangy, laid-back, Jimmy Buffett-heavy score sums up the film's lack of energy. The joy of being a kid is that everything in the world is new, and cinematic clichés haven't become clichés yet. And the kids Hoot is aimed at weren't around to see all the previous films it echoes, particularly the toothless Disney live-action films of the '70s. They'll probably like Hoot fine. Everyone else in the audience is likely to nod off and have genial, bland, easygoing dreams.