Bird of Paradise

An enjoyable kid flick, Hoot is sweet without being saccharine.

Between the whining, the excessive candy consumption and the badly timed bathroom breaks, taking a kid to the movies has rarely been a picnic, historically speaking. The potential for disaster at this juncture, however, is approaching a whole new sort of scary.

It was bad enough when grown-ups' worst-case scenario simply involved being annoyed by their young companion or bored to tears by the film. But in these dark days of the early 21st century, when it often seems like every other youth-oriented movie is testing the limits of its PG or PG-13 rating, there are more than a few adults terrified of the possibility that a kid in their charge (whether their own or a loaner) will someday walk out of a movie theater emotionally or psychologically scarred for life. It may take weeks, months or years to discover the full extent of the damage, but just imagine the lawsuits.

Given these sorts of fears, the best thing you might say about Hoot is that the chances of it inflicting even minor damage on young minds are practically nil. There's nothing here more psyche-bending than a bag full of snakes and a big, mean bully (who gets his just desserts), and the movie manages the considerable feat of being extremely sweet while not coming off as totally innocuous. In other words, you could do a whole lot worse.

Hoot has a fairly impressive pedigree going for it as well, from Carl Hiaasen (who wrote the best-selling book on which it's based) to big-shot producer Frank Marshall (Seabiscuit, Signs) to musician Jimmy Buffett (who also appears in the film) to director Wil Shriner (a Frasier alumnus who clearly made the movie with his own two children in mind). The film manages to balance adventure, a touch of mystery and sporadic grace notes of comedy without tripping all over itself, then seals the deal with a parent-approved, environmentally-friendly message. And it all takes place in a stupendously photographed Florida, the likes of which only exists on postcards and in people's imaginations.

A slew of those postcard-perfect images of paradise open the film (along with a bouncy Buffett tune equating unspoiled real estate with "some kind of ecstasy"), as we're introduced to our young hero, Roy (Logan Lerman), newly arrived in scenic Coconut Grove — an imaginary waterfront locale supposedly situated somewhere in the vicinity of Ft. Myers.

In between dealing with new-kid-in-school syndrome, bullies and kooky teachers (including Buffett, looking a little lost in a small role), Roy finds himself drawn into a series of curious events that includes odd doings at a local construction site and a strange barefoot boy who can outrun a school bus, and who no one will admit exists. And then there are those impossibly cute baby owls that periodically pop out of their burrows just long enough to elicit a collective "Awww" from all the kids in the audience (and a few adults too).

It turns out the impossibly cute owls are in danger of having their habitat squashed by the building plans of a soulless mega-corporation — a not particularly mysterious mystery that the movie takes its sweet time in revealing — and so Roy teams up with some other kids to stop this from happening. The ringleader of these young eco-activists is the mysterious barefoot boy (Cody Linley), a sort of cross between Ken Kesey, Peter Pan and Henry David Thoreau, who devises a series of merry pranks to convince the soulless mega-corporation of the error of their ways.

Sprinkled throughout the proceedings are the antics of the cranky but basically well-meaning manager of the construction site (Tim Blake Nelson), a dopey but well-meaning cop (Luke Wilson), and one or two other characters who are also well-meaning despite whatever other primary personality trait they're defined by.

All of these characters eventually progress from well-meaning to lovable, a progression that coincides with most of them giving each other lovable nicknames (barefoot boy is called Mullet Fingers for his amazing ability to scoop fish right out of the water, although he promptly throws them back in, naturally). Even the acts of sabotage that the kids perpetrate against the big, bad company are basically lovable, usually involving nothing more threatening than a little spray paint in the night or a baby alligator deposited discretely in a toilet.

The goofy cop and his grown-up colleagues bumble and stumble their way through the film's final half-hour, the kids engage in their sassy but safe protest, the owls make goo-goo eyes at the audience, and it all culminates in the inevitable show-down between the plucky youngsters and the mean old land developers. In between, there are a few extended montages of the characters frolicking in various natural settings, lots of drop-dead gorgeous Florida sunsets, and more Jimmy Buffett music than many of us thought we'd ever have to endure (including, at the risk of giving too much away, a closing song that repeats the phrase "good guys win" over and over again).

It's all quite, well, lovable, and without much of anything that adults are likely find too terribly unbearable (except possibly for the Buffet music). Even more important, there's not a single moment in Hoot that, as far as I can see, might provide a catalyst for some rosy-cheeked tyke's eventual transformation into a drooling axe murderer. It's unlikely that you'll be seeing that last sentence quoted as a blurb in the film's advertising, but I'll wager there are more than a few parents who'll take comfort in the thought.

And since a grown-up rating for a movie like this is probably pointless, let me just mention what my 7-year-old teenager-in-training and his little pals had to say when asked to rate the movie. I can't say with absolute authority that these kids are unaware of Spinal Tap, but they had to be connecting with that much-loved spoof on some astral plane when each of them in turn and in perfect sincerity proceeded to award Hoot, on a scale of one to 10, an 11. The jury has spoken.

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