The absolute best villain for kids’ movies — the sort of scoundrel at the heart of seemingly every Scooby-Doo cartoon — gets an overdue workout in Hoot, based on the Newbury Award-winning young adult novel by bestselling author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen. That’s right, folks: greedy land developers. (Insert loud booing here.) Even this justifiably loathsome antagonist, though, can’t completely rescue Hoot, a sincere but muddled family film.

Hoot’s story centers on perpetual new kid on the block Roy Eberhart (Logan Lerman), a newcomer to the small coastal burg of Coconut Grove, Florida, who finds his first day of middle school rudely interrupted by chubby bully Dana Matherson (Eric Phillips). His face squashed up against the school bus window, Roy sees a mysterious, blonde-haired, barefoot kid, later to be known as “Mullet Fingers” (Cody Linley), go streaking by outside. Roy is captivated by the kid’s blinding speed, and the fact that he’s apparently a vagrant, since no one at school knows him. No one, that is, except Beatrice Leep (Brie Larson), who only further excites Roy’s curiosity by warning him to stay away.

Parallel to this intrigue is the story of a plot of land marked for development, the future site of a new chain-restaurant pancake house. The area is beset with vandalism, causing no small amount of consternation for regional manager Chuck Muckle (Clark Gregg) and Curly Branitt (Tim Blake Nelson), his dim-bulb man on the ground. Local deputy David Delinko (Luke Wilson) is assigned to investigate, but he falls asleep in his squad car one night on a stakeout, and wakes up to find his windows spray-painted black. Demoted by his captain and derided by his peers, Delinko stays on the case, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, which turns out to involve an endangered species of subterranean owls. As Muckle presses forward with plans to bulldoze the lot, can Roy and his new friends avoid capture, raise proper awareness and save the day for their new little feathered friends?

Satirist Hiaasen, who previously suffered the indignity of Hollywood’s adaptation of his novel Striptease, works in much simpler and more earnest strokes here, but he’s done few favors by the adaptation and direction of Wil Shriner, a lauded sitcom veteran making his feature debut. Perhaps the challenges of working on location and frequently outdoors proved taxing on Shriner’s grasp of the big picture, because many of the adult performances are broad and/or unfocused, seemingly copped from different pages, tonally speaking. Hiaasen’s fellow Floridian Jimmy Buffet contributes five ukulele-influenced tunes for the soundtrack, and cameos as a laidback science teacher, but the film is otherwise slow-pitched at a much younger demographic.

What Hoot does have going for it, though, is Lerman, who makes me almost wish I’d paid attention to UPN’s Jack & Bobby before it got axed. Relaxed and naturally charismatic, he suffers serial abuse (his parents make him write bully Dana a letter of apology) with aplomb. If the other characters are kind of wan and familiar and the film’s plot twists dutiful, you at least never get tired of having Lerman as your guide. (New Line, PG, 89 mins.)


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