There’s a lot to be said for the idealism of youth. Many of us spent a portion of our adolescence committed to some abstract ideal of justice or charity that became increasingly difficult to maintain as concerns about our personal career goals, academic achievements, romantic relationships, or social position gradually jostled aside those nobler aims. Saving an endangered species or fighting for racial equality — these are good and important causes, but we often find it hard to sustain the same commitment level when we’re trying to impress our world lit professor with our erudition while simultaneously trying to get into the pants of the cute kid who sits in the second row. Past our mid-20s, who among us hasn’t looked back at the committed idealism of his pre-hormonal self and felt a twinge of guilt that he didn’t keep up his veganism past a couple of months or that he completely bailed on that AIDS Walk?
“But wait,” you may be saying, “I didn’t skip the AIDS Walk — I’ve done it every year since its inception, and I haven’t eaten meat since Reagan was in office! I tithe to PETA and send the Human Rights Campaign $50 every time I see Ralph Reed on TV!” Pat yourself on the back. It’s true: While some of us set aside the Lisa-Simpsonesque idealism that made us such obnoxious proselytizers in our youth, others maintain their commitments far longer — look at Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, and they’re both in their early hundreds. See, this is one of the big problems (but only one) with the new movie Hoot: It assumes 13-year-olds have some kind of special nobility gland at the base of their brains that slowly atrophies as they sprout body hair and sex drives. It flatters adolescent egos by setting its tween heroes against evil developers and clueless parents; the kids are the only ones who “get it,” and only by outsmarting the adults — even the sympathetic ones are useless to help — can they accomplish their good deed.
Watching the movie, I kept vacillating between thinking Hey, this isn’t so bad and Lord, is this ever stupid. The movie’s amateurish writer/director, Wil Shriner, is a standup comedian who turned to sitcom directing several years back (this is his first film), and he maintains a sitcom-style approach throughout: The story is contrived, the transitions are clumsy, and much of the acting is weak. The central situation never seems plausible: A huge chain called Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House is opening a new location in Coconut Cove, Florida, but it hires a lone redneck named Curly (Tim Blake Nelson, doing his usual redneck shtick) to guard the site, and he’s beset by a series of mishaps engineered by an industrious middle-school-aged runaway out to protect the burrowing owls that inhabit the land. Now, Mother Paula’s is a huge corporation — why don’t they hire real security for the site? Or put up a big fence? And why does the city send its most inept, Barney-Fife-esque cop (sadly, Luke Wilson) to guard it? And do they bother to send anyone else when he stops guarding it after a single disastrous night? And why did Curly take the city’s environmental impact survey for the site and carelessly rip out the page about the nesting owls, leaving a big chunk of it still in the binder? And why would the survey mention the owls on only one page? And why would Curly keep an intact — and incriminating — copy of the survey in his on-site trailer? These questions, and many others, will not be answered by the makers of this film any time soon.
Shriner adapted the script from Carl Hiaasen’s short novel of the same name, his first for “young readers.” Though Hiaasen aged-down his protagonists to appeal to the middle-school crowd, it otherwise follows his usual pattern: Rapacious developers set out to destroy an untouched piece of Florida real estate; quirky heroes intervene; the day is saved (did I spoil the end?). As formulas go, it’s a fairly sturdy one — basically your standard crime-novel template with an ecological spin — but in rejiggering it for a new audience, Hiaasen seemingly forgot what’s clear in his other books: that there are adults in Florida willing to take on the developers, so the kid’s tactics — putting alligators in porta-potties, releasing rats into Curly’s trailer, vandalizing police cars — are unnecessary hokum, there only to give him a mild, Disney-style naughtiness.
It’s worth noting, though, that Hoot isn’t a Disney movie, however much it may feel like one. It was produced by Walden Media, the company that previously gave us Holes, Because of Winn-Dixie, and The Chronicles of Narnia and will be releasing How to Eat Fried Worms and Charlotte’s Web in the coming months. Walden’s money comes from conservative Christian billionaire Philip Anschutz, but it doesn’t pursue an overtly Christian agenda; its founders, Cary Granat, formerly the president of Dimension Films, and his college roommate Micheal Flaherty, formerly a political speechwriter, started the company so that they could make wholesome, non-denominational family films with unobjectionable themes, the kind of movies that, in the late ’90s, when Granat conceived Walden’s mission, almost no one in Hollywood was interested in making. Most of their films thus far have been remarkably successful, both in luring families into the theaters and in constructing presentable adaptations of popular children’s books. They’re toothless, vanilla entertainments that don’t force parents to spend the ride home explaining what a vibrator is or why the mean man wanted all those human skins, and as such they serve their purpose adequately. No doubt many parents consider them a boon, but anyone without a passel of young’uns to entertain would be better off spending his time and money on more intellectually challenging fare, like, say, Poseidon.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Hoot / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 19, 2006 | Comments ()