Truth & Lions


Issue: "California's new governor," Oct. 4, 2003

MOST SMART, MEMORABLE, and really worthwhile children's movies don't pander to their adolescent audience. By contrast, plenty of disposable children's entertainment doesn't even bother to make a pretense of adhering to some sort of internal logic, assuming that the intended audience will neither notice nor care.

The bad news is that Secondhand Lions, from director Tim McCanlies (who wrote the screenplay for the highly regarded 1999 animated feature Iron Giant), is sorely lacking in logic. It's full of ludicrous scenes that one would be hard pressed to explain in real-world terms. The good news is that this has surprisingly little impact on the viewer's enjoyment of the film, thanks in large part to the performances of two aging screen pros: Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. There's also a tangible sense of childhood wonder, starting with an early scene in an attic containing a mysterious locked trunk and continuing in vividly rendered flashbacks of wild African adventures.

Haley Joel Osment (fine in his first teen role) plays a young man all but abandoned by his flighty mother at the home of two crusty uncles reputed to be sitting on untold millions. However wealthy, the eccentric pair (played by the aforementioned Mr. Caine and Mr. Duvall) lives sparsely in a dilapidated farmhouse on a remote Texas ranch. Mr. Osment's young Walter is timid and withdrawn; his uncles, Garth and Hub, are far from timid, but equally withdrawn from the experience of life. Naturally, the story involves a two-part awakening, as old teaches young the verities of life and young teaches old not to give in or give up before the end.

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Many of the movie's messages are rather dubious: In a crucial scene, Mr. Duvall's character tells Mr. Osment's that the most important things to believe in life are those that might not be true. Make of that what you will, but Mr. Duvall's gruff yet twinkle-eyed delivery gives the speech enough gravitas to pass.

Secondhand Lions is rated PG for thematic material, bad language, and action violence; Garth and Hub's gruff talk also includes an unnecessary amount of mild profanity. Overall, the amiably paced movie is a pleasant, two-hour diversion. But with a better script, the team assembled here could surely have met a much higher standard.


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