Writer/director Tim McCanlies has created a fun fantasy adventure made out of the same golden nostalgia that comprised The Wonder Years and The Princess Bride. Robert Duvall and Michael Caine sparkle as the crazy, curmudgeonly bachelors who make Walter’s childhood years so magical.
PG for thematic material, language, action violence
Did You Notice?
Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is about twelve. His mom drives him to Texas to stay with his supposedly rich uncles while she attends court reporter school. The long driveway peppered with “no trespassing” and “rabid dog” signs frightens Walter. The ramshackle ranch at the end of that driveway horrifies him.
He’s absolutely repulsed when he sees his aging uncles sitting on the porch with their shotguns. “The last thing we need is some sissy boy hangin’ around all summer,” grunts Hub McCann (Duvall).
Before he can beg for a stay of execution, Walter’s mother leaves him in a cloud of dust with two armed, staring coots. “We don’t know anything about kids,” says Hub, “so if you need anything find it yourself.”
“Or better yet, learn to do without,” adds Garth (Caine).
It’s true that Hub and Garth are rich, or at least everyone else seems to believe it. Traveling salesmen brave the “rabid dogs” several times a day for the opportunity to get some of the legendary McCann money. Hub and Garth make a sport of it. They sit on the porch with their shotguns, waiting for the next Fuller Brush man to approach. A couple of warning shots over the head is usually all it takes to send them scurrying away.
Walter eases his way into Texas life by befriending the “rabid” dogs first. They’re not as scary as his uncles. When he discovers Hub sleepwalking and staring across their pond, he asks Garth what Hub is looking for. “Jasmine,” he says.
With that name, Walter and Garth make their first connection, and Walter begins to understand, even enjoy, life on the Ranch. “Jasmine” opens the door to the stories of Garth and Hub’s youth, spent in swashbuckling adventure in Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean. Even if they’re not true, the adventure stories ease the tension between Walter and his uncles.
Feeling more confident, Walter makes a suggestion to Hub and Garth. If they have all that money, why not spend it? It takes the old codgers a minute to comprehend this radical notion, but eventually Hub says “We’ll see what the man’s sellin’, then we’ll shoot ‘im.”
One canny salesman, familiar with the ways of Hub and Garth, brings a skeet machine, which pleases them to no end. The next logical step is to buy a lion so they can have their own safari. As the title indicates, their lion is secondhand from a circus, not even worth the shells. So Walter adopts her and names her Jasmine.
When the plot finally kicks in — Walter’s mother, who has been gallivanting instead of going to trade school, arrives with a gold-digging private eye to find the McCann money — the movie loses much of its charm. The colorful becomes simply hard to swallow, and the outlandishness seems less larger-than-life and more cartoonish. The final ending is positive and magical, but by then it’s too late.
It’s easy to have a good time at Secondhand Lions. But recommending it is a little harder.
For one thing, the movie is Hollywoodized. Every emotion or laugh is worked to register two or three decibels higher than it deserves. The overblown score swells in all the right places, and one might expect a laugh track, if such a thing were allowed in the movies.
For another, the movie feels overedited. It feels like entire scenes were cut from the film, leaving only the “good parts,” at the expense of the film’s sense of completeness. One of the “rabid dogs” is a pig, who just stops appearing in the later scenes. Toward the end, Hub buys an airplane, but the movie doesn’t do anything with this subplot. Walter hears all about Hub’s famous “manhood” speech, but then we never get to hear a word of it.
These niggling annoyances add up. The movie is fun, but thinking about it afterwards reveals just how sloppy it is. I had hoped Secondhand Lions might be a classic, but capturing the feel of a classic is only half the battle.
If it can’t stand up to scrutiny and multiple viewings, it’s just a fun adventure movie.