Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Film Review: 'Secondhand Lions' – 9.0/10

Film Review: Adventure · Comedy · Coming-of-Age (2003)
'Secondhand Lions'
Written by Joé McKen on Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Walter's (Haley Joel Osment) summer isn't exactly what one might call 'boring' in Tim McCanlies' magnificent 2003 story Secondhand Lions.

We all have them: older folks who just love to tell us young'uns stories about bygone ages when things were so much better, kids had more respect, the world made sense, etc. We're all bored to tears by them yet refrain from mentioning so as to not hurt their feelings. However, some older folks' stories aren't all that boring; in fact, some can really be quite interesting. So interesting, that if those stories are the kind told by Hub and Garth McCann (Robert Duvall and Michael Caine, respectively), that one can't know for sure if they really happened or not.

Such is the scenario brought to us by Tim McCanlies, the writer and director of the wonderful coming-of-age story that is Secondhand Lions. In the 60s, young Walter Coleman (Haley Joel Osment) is dumped at his great-uncles' secluded Texas residence for the summer by his pathologically irresponsible mother, Mae (Kyra Sedgwick), while the latter presumably heads off to 'Court Reporting School' in Dallas (though a later letter of hers with the post-stamp labeled 'Las Vegas' seems to challenge that). However, there are abundant rumors in the area concerning a mysterious hidden fortune the old men seem to possess, and it quickly becomes obvious it's no accident this is where poor Walter is being deposited.

However, if Walter was at first hesitant or reticent about being dropped off at the doorstep of two elderly strangers, this feeling soon turns to outright fear and dread as his first impression of the men is seeing them fish bass with shotguns, followed by their favorite pass-time of opening fire at traveling salesmen who continually pester them (apparently the rumor of them being gun-toting madmen doesn't have the legs of the rumor of them being rich). They don't even have a telephone or a television he could use to distract himself with.

Garth, being a sort of middle-grounds man between the action-hungry Hub and level-headed normal person, soon explains to Walter what happened during their mysterious 40-year disappearance, starting in World War I. The stories he tells are the kind any child would both love and need to hear in their childhood: tales of heroic battles in intense wars and bravery facing impossible odds, of horseriding swordsmen with more courage and skill than 20 men, of beautiful exotic princesses, of evil shiekhs out for revenge, and most of all, everlasting love that crosses time and space, even when those you love may not be around anymore. They are seen, through flashbacks, in Technicolor-esque hues with stereotypical, almost comedic setups clearly intended to indicate these are Walter's interpretations of his uncles' stories, rather than whatever may, or may not, have actually happened.

However, it's not like the present is entirely devoid of action and 'fun', either. Although the two uncles may keep bemoaning their age and weakening bodies and minds, they soon start to appear as living contradictions as they fight off gangs of young rascals, buy a used lion from a circus to give Walter something to take care of (and a clever and amusing ruse that was, too), and tearing through the skies, performing acrobatics in a WWI-era biplane.

One thing that is truly needed to pull off a movie such as this one, which relies not on the technical side but the artistic, storytelling facade, is solid acting, and this movie delivers it by the bucketful. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine imbibe their characters with a sort of inner conviction and resonance one rarely ever sees in real-life, much less on the silver screen. Haley Joel Osment plays the clear-eyed and support-starved Walter with an acting strength quite rare in actors his age, proving himself to be more than capable of standing up to the challenge imposed by performing next to icons such as Duvall and Caine.

In the end, his summer will reach an end and several final discoveries and revelations will be made, which will fundamentally challenge everything he knew or thought he knew, yet fear not; I have no intention of ruining any of it here. It's only fitting that as Walter eventually reaches adulthood, he becomes a comic strip artist and bases his stories from his childhood years with those two wacky but lovable uncles and their unique views on life. They are the kind of relatives or friends everyone ought to have growing up, yet that so few actually do. If an adult-to-be is unable to have the company of said people, they can at least see this film from a third-person's perspective and learn what they'd need to know that way.

For bringing us the sorts of stories we desperately need at any stage in our lives in such a comical yet level-headed way, I prize Tim McCanlies' Secondhand Lions with 9.0 cornstalks out of 10, along with a mention as 'special recommendation'.

Hub McCann: Robert Duvall • Garth McCann: Michael Caine • Walter Coleman: Haley Joel Osment • Mae Coleman: Kyra Sedgwick
Crew & Credits
Director(s): Tim McCanlies • Writer(s): Tim McCanlies • Original Score: Patrick Doyle
General Information
Distributed by: New Line Cinema • Released: September 19, 2003 • Rated: PG


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