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Secondhand Lions

  Secondhand Lions
I had no idea Robert Duvall looked so old ... and dogged.

© 2003, Miramax
All Rights Reserved

Walter (Haley Joel Osmet) is a 12-year-old boy who has just been dumped by his neglectful mother (Kyra Sedgwick) into the care of his great-uncles, Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall). There's a dark mystery surrounding the decidedly unfriendly uncles, which includes stories of bank robberies, middle-eastern princesses, the purchase of a used lion for hunting, and a love lost that has turned Hub into the noble man he is today. Over the course of the summer, Walter sets out to discover the truth about his relatives, while trying to cope with his own lonely existence, and the endless lies from his mother.

It's tough to accurately gauge just what type of film "Secondhand Lions" (IMDb listing) is. Writer/director Tim McCanlies has put a lot of effort into his script to fashion a story that has many genre textures and dramatic flavors. On one hand, the film is an ode to old-fashioned codes of honor and respect; on the other, it's a mystery. There is a third hand that holds the film's fantasy subplot, which comes in the form of Garth and Hub recounting their swashbuckling, globe-trotting youth. I enjoyed the many parts of "Lions" as individual contributions to the plot, but as a consistent feature film, "Lions" is a clutter of ideas. McCanlies, who wrote the near brilliant script for the animated 1999 film "The Iron Giant," isn't skilled enough a filmmaker to sew up the frayed ends of his story. He does his best to emphasize the needed emotion for each scene, whether it is slapstick comedy or deep sorrow, but he can't do it without a distinct fraudulent atmosphere that the picture is unable to shake.

There is a compelling theme that McCanlies tries to drizzle on top of his cinematic creation, and that is the important role men play in teaching boys about life. Now there's a message that needs to be explored more on film. McCanlies has Hub deliver speeches on how boys are unable to grow into men anymore, promising Walter he will hear his definitive "Man Speech" one day before he dies. This is a intriguing subplot in the film, as well as being utterly important and rare.

It is, oddly enough, the short displays of swordfighting and action that stick out about "Lions." McCanlies has a wonderful eye on how to shoot the Garth and Hub fantasy sequences, using balanced fight choreography for optimum effect. The set-pieces are short, but satisfying, and makes one ponder how much better McCanlies would've handled the summer blockbuster "Pirates of the Caribbean" if he were the director.

A lot of attention paid to "Lions" will be because of young Haley Joel Osmet's return to the screen after a two-year hiatus from live-action performing. Osmet is growing up, and his peculiar pubescent self is a hoot to behold, though independent of the charm derived from "Lions." As he gets older, Osmet's natural ability appears to be eroding, leaving an actor full of indication and little honesty. McCanlies directs Osmet to cry as much as possible, which detracts from the real sentimental value that lies in the heart of the picture. Osmet can hold his own with vets like Caine and Duvall, but on his own, the "Sixth Sense" vet would be wise not to try so hard and just allow his instincts to take over.

"Secondhand Lions" wants desperately to delight the audience with tall tales and even bigger discoveries. I believe McCanlies has come within striking distance of his goal, but at the end of "Lions" there just isn't enough pixie dust in the direction to illuminate the walk out of the theater.

Filmfodder Grade: C

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