THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


When Carl Hiaasen was a boy in Florida, he and some friends tried to stop a business from building on a piece of land that was inhabited by owls. At night, when no one was around, they would sneak onto the construction site and pull out all the markers. This meant that the contractors had to re-survey the land repeatedly. Their mischievous actions delayed the excavation of the property, but did not halt it. The owls were, Hiaasen says, literally bulldozed over. As a best-selling author, he decided to use this childhood memory as the basis for a young-adult book called “Hoot” which, he insisted, would have a much different ending. The novel became something of a sensation among its target audience, but it scored with adults too. I’ve not yet read the book although I purchased it immediately after seeing the new film adaptation. Forget the “young adult” label: this is a terrific story that should appeal to people of all ages.

Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) is a teenage boy who, thanks to his father’s career, has moved many times during his young life. As the movie opens, the family has settled in a small Florida town called Coconut Cove. Roy does not anticipate having a great experience here, especially after being immediately targeted by the school bully. While riding the bus home one afternoon, he glances out the window and sees a shoeless teen running at top speed. Curious, Roy hops off the bus and tries to find the kid. This doesn’t sit well with Beatrice (Brie Larson), a classmate who literally orders Roy to forget about the running kid.

Of course, he doesn’t do that. As Roy’s friendship with Beatrice tentatively develops, he learns her little secret. The shoeless boy is her brother, nicknamed Mullet Fingers (Cody Linley). The adults all think that he’s in military school; in reality, he has escaped and hides out in the forest. At night, he sneaks onto the site of Mother Paula’s Pancake House, a restaurant that is in the early stages of being built. Owls are living on the land, but the foreman, Curly Branitt (Tim Blake Nelson), doesn’t seem to care. Mullet Fingers manages to stay one step ahead of his nemesis. He pulls out the survey stakes, and when Curly hires guard dogs to patrol the property, he has a plan to scare them off. This is only one of his creative techniques. The delays in progress are upsetting to Curly’s boss, a corporate bigwig named Chuck Muckle (Clark Gregg).

Roy eventually comes to care passionately about saving the owls, so he starts helping his new friends out. He also becomes acquainted with David Delinko (Luke Wilson), an inept but good-hearted local cop who is supposed to be catching the vandals. Curly repeatedly belittles Delinko for not making progress fast enough. As they crank up the security measures, Roy and the gang must find new and more innovative ways to save the owls before Curly has the entire lot bulldozed.

Sometimes family films – especially those that come with an ecological message – can feel a little pre-packaged. The great thing about Hoot is that it avoids this very pitfall. For starters, the message is presented in a way that is motivational but not preachy. (There actually aren’t many owls visible in the film, so the emphasis is on how Roy learns to care passionately about something.) Also, the story is packed with unusual, eccentric characters that add a layer of freshness and fun. In addition to the shoeless Mullet Fingers, the flustered Curly, and the hapless Officer Delinko, the movie also finds room for a young actress who is forced to dress up as an old woman to be the pancake house mascot.

Carl Hiaasen’s books are notable for putting such characters into quirky situations. Screenwriter/director Wil Shriner has translated that quality to the screen. You can really see this in the scenes involving Delinko. When Mullet Fingers sabotages the officer’s stakeout by damaging his patrol car, the cop is forced to drive around in a little golf cart for the duration of the film. (This makes it even more difficult to give chase to mischievous preteens.) Another example is the subplot in which Roy is repeatedly tormented by that bully. At one point, he’s actually ordered to write an apology letter to the kid, despite the fact that he was the victim. Roy’s method for handling the situation is enormously clever.

Watching Hoot, I was reminded of Holes - another adaptation of a young adult book that features highly original characters placed in unexpected situations. Both stories work because the kids are smart. Roy, Beatrice, and Mullet Fingers are not your generic cutesy movie moppets. They are resourceful and intuitive adolescents. When an obstacle gets in their way, they look for a solution in the way real kids would. There is a scene where Roy, in an effort to figure out how to protect the owls, visits the local zoning office to investigate the ordinances. I felt like cheering because the film has the guts to show its young viewers how you really affect change. It’s not done through Home Alone, Rube Goldberg-style booby traps; it’s done through methods that are logical and practical.

Yes, the film does slip in a few moments of contrived comedy, especially at the end when our heroes face off against Muckle. But even in those slightly unrealistic moments, the story finds Roy weighing right and wrong. Mullet Fingers does something that Roy doesn’t agree with and – get this – they have a short discussion about the ethics of it. Those few slapstick gags aren’t there just to get a laugh; they’re to show impressionable young viewers the consequences of going too far.

In a time when so many “family” films are lazy or send mixed messages, it’s incredibly refreshing to see one that is as brainy, funny, and charming as Hoot. The movie pulled me in. I believed in these characters and in their mission. Kids are very likely to respond to the message at the center of all the fun. The story nicely gets across the idea that children do have the power to change the minds of adults. Their innocent, unspoiled perspectives need to be heard. On top of a great message, good performances, and an involving story, Hoot also has gorgeous Florida scenery and a soundtrack from Jimmy Buffet (who also produced and plays one of Roy’s teachers). This is all-around wonderful family entertainment.

( 1/2 out of four)

Hoot is rated PG for mild bullying and brief language. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes.

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