Wil Shriner's listless adaptation of Florida-based novelist Carl Hiaasen's first stab at young-adult fiction retains all the plot points but loses the breezy, chatty cynicism that makes his light thrillers such cracking good reads. Newly relocated to Florida, eighth-grader Roy Eberhardt (Logan Lerman) is on his sixth school in nine years — the family follows his dad's big-deal job with the Justice Department — and sleepy Coconut Cove's Trace Middle School isn't shaping up well. Roy runs afoul of school bully Dana Matherson (Eric Phillips) before his first class, and by his second day he's added surly soccer star Beatrice Leep (Brie Larson) to his list of newfound enemies. He's also stumbled onto a mystery: Who is the sunburned, barefoot boy (Cody Linley) he sees running like a gazelle alongside the school bus, and what, if anything, does he have to do with the kerfuffle surrounding construction of a new Mother Paula's Pancake House? Some prankster keeps sneaking onto the construction site, pulling up surveying stakes, putting alligators in the porta-potties and generally obstructing the forward march of development despite the best efforts of none-too-bright officer David Delinko (Luke Wilson) and downright dumb foreman Curly Brannick (Tim Blake Nelson). The answers behind these mysterious happenings involve one of Hiaassen's pet peeves — unscrupulous and ecologically unsound real-estate development — but are given a cute spin for young readers/moviegoers: The flapjack joint is going up on a patch of ground inhabited by tiny burrowing owls, and ruthless Mother Paula's executive Mr. Muckle (Clark Gregg) will stop at nothing — certainly not a bunch of birds that don't even have the decency to nest in trees. So Beatrice, Roy and the feral lad — who turns out to be Beatrice's stepbrother, a natural-born naturalist hiding out from family problems — band together to save the wide-eyed critters from Muckle's bulldozers, a quest that teaches them plenty about corporate greed, dirty politics and Florida's embattled wilderness. It's a shame that a movie that mixes a call to preserve wilderness areas and protect endangered species with its standard-issue tween concerns should be such a lackluster affair, but any time the owls are off screen (which is most of the time, since they live in holes in the ground), the proceedings have all the appeal of a soggy onion ring. The child actors are bland, the adult characters are forced to act like dunderheads to keep the paper-thin plot going, and the generic-sounding Jimmy Buffett songs are just a little out of sync with the film's target age group.
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