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Environmental Adventure Stirs Controversy on Big Screen Also

An environmental adventure enjoyed as a book by millions of young people has been made into a family movie; and, like the book before it, the film is generating some controversy. Alan Silverman spoke with the author for this look at "Hoot"

A restaurant chain has plans to build on a vacant field in a sleepy town on the Florida Gulf Coast, until three 13-year-olds face off against the corporate developer because, it turns out, the field is habitat for a colony of endangered burrowing owls.

The three of them - Roy, the new kid in school, played by Logan Lerman, Brie Larson as tomboy soccer star Beatrice and Cody Linley as her activist brother, nicknamed 'Mullet Fingers' - set out on an adventure to stop the bulldozers and save the owls. Brie Larson says she's been a fan of the book since it was first published in 2002.

"I was. I was part of a book club when I was about 12 years old and they send you books in the mail every month. I read about a book a week, so it worked out great for me. I got "Hoot" in the mail, read it and loved it and I wanted to make it into a movie," she says.

Cody Linley likes how the story tells young people they can make a difference. "Before the film, I knew about animals and the environment, but I didn't really see how kids could really play a part in helping out," he says. After doing this film I saw ... the message of the film shows ... that anybody can help out and play a part in saving their environment."

The book was written by Miami Herald newspaper columnist and novelist Carl Hiassen as a commentary on the rapid and widespread property development that he has witnessed in his home state of Florida. Hiassen has a sarcastic take on most issues, but not the response of young readers to the 'save the environment' theme of Hoot.

"As frightening as it is, this book is taught in hundreds of schools now. I didn't realize it, but I've been getting this mail and that theme is the first thing the kids plug into. It's given me a lot of hope because I'm a pretty cynical guy ... and that's one of the things we always talked about with the movie. The earliest commitment was that this was going to keep the spirit and themes of the book that were important to me, because I didn't want all these kids who had read the book to go into the theater ... they're very loyal ... and to say 'wait a minute, that's not like the book that I read.' Then they come after me. I'm the one that's getting all the mail. So I wanted them to at least have the feel and the sensitivity and the fun of the book," he says.

However, some critics complain that the young heroes of the story break the law when they do things like vandalize a bulldozer and otherwise sabotage the construction site; and the developers are portrayed as unscrupulous opportunists for whom profit trumps environment.

It is criticism the author has heard before and he vigorously defends the characters, especially 'Mullet Fingers,' who Hiassen says is the favorite in most of the mail he receives from young readers.

"All he's doing is fighting for something he believes in. He's not stealing. He's not robbing. He's not spray-painting graffiti. He's just fighting these little battles as they come along. I don't think he's a revolutionary or rebel or anything else. If you were walking down the street and you saw somebody kicking a dog, you're one of two kinds of people: you're going to turn around and walk the other way or you're going to walk up to that person and you're going to do whatever you have to do stop him from kicking the dog. If that's being a revolutionary or some sort of 'eco-terrorist,' so what? You're doing the right thing instead of the wrong thing, which is walking away. That's all the message is. It's not complicated," he says.

And Hiassen says he is not worried about backlash.

"Oh, nothing would thrill me more; but you know the fact is that kids have a gut, intuitive feel for what is right and what is wrong. You put 500 kids in a room, show them this movie and ask them afterwards 'raise your hand if you're for the guy on the bulldozer.' You tell me how many hands you're going to see. That's not brainwashing," he says. "That's coming from their heart. There's a way to balance and balance is the issue here. Growth isn't going to stop. They're not going to mothball [retire] all of the bulldozers; but there is a balance and that's all you can fight for. I'm not telling them to go out and do it, but the great thing they seem to respond to is that, [like Jimmy Buffett says in the song], sometimes the good guys win. That's all I want them to take away: the feeling that if you don't fight, you've got no chance at all. If you do fight, you might be one of the lucky ones that wins once in a while."

Hoot also features Luke Wilson as a bumbling sheriff's deputy who starts out as an adversary but then becomes an ally of the young environmentalists. It is the latest project of Denver-based Walden Media, which has as its goal films with uplifting themes. The producers also include singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who plays a small role on screen [as a science teacher] and provides several songs for the soundtrack. Hoot was shot on location on Florida's scenic west coast.