Like this spring’s engaging hit Holes, Secondhand Lions is a tale of an awkward adolescent boy (Haley Joel Osment, A.I.) cruelly stranded in an inhospitable, dusty, barren locale with intimidating authority figures, this time a pair of crusty great-uncles (Robert Duvall and Michael Caine) who, like Holes’s Mr. Sir, have an alarming affinity for their firearms.
The similarities don’t end there. Both films feature romance and action in an exotic, almost epic back-story that may or may not be entirely true, efforts to find a rumored hidden treasure, and a question of larceny. Both films also boast juicy roles for their formidable adult actors, though Lions is more interested in young Walter’s uncles as characters than Holes was in its rather cartoonish grownups, and Duvall particularly brings more gusto to the role of Uncle Hub than even Sigourney Weaver or Jon Voight in Holes.
In the end, though, Secondhand Lions is a pleasant and entertaining film that’s neither as demanding nor as satisfying as the superior Holes. The setup promises more early conflict than the first act delivers, and the story-arc doesn’t give the protagonist enough to do. Beyond that, the film gestures at moral lessons it never quite fleshes out or illustrates, and what ought to have been a key plot point is relegated to a tacked-on coda, depriving it of the crucial significance it should have had.
What carries the film in spite of these weaknesses, besides the strong performances, are the appealing relationships that develop between Walter and his uncles, tongue-in-cheek serial-cliffhanger style flashbacks of derring-do in WWI-era Europe and Africa, a couple of subversively funny subplots involving money-hungry relatives and traveling salesmen, and some good-hearted themes about responsibility, growing up, and old age.
Wunderkind Haley Joel Osment continues his unbroken string of solid performances, aging gracefully as an actor into adolescence. Aside from a couple of moments in which he reaches for childish mannerisms that aren’t there for him any more, he delivers what the film needs, connecting credibly with his veteran co-stars and glossing over some of the script’s thinner patches with emotional conviction.
Writer-director Tim McCanlies, who previously wrote The Iron Giant, brings a similar sense of nostalgia and sentiment to this live-action effort, which is also about a boy growing up without a father figure who finds a couple of unconventional role models. But where Iron Giant’s Hogarth at least had a loving and devoted mother, Walter’s mother (Kyra Sedgwick) is a flighty, unreliable bimbo who fobs off her son for the summer on two uncles she barely knows in order to pursue her social life. (This lack of a positive background picture of family life is another point of contrast with Holes.)
McCanlies also brings a kind of spiritual fuzziness that to a lesser degree also affected The Iron Giant, with that film’s notions of the "soul" as something inside "all good things," and of all killing, even deer hunting, as "wrong."
There’s a key scene in Lions in which Walter tells Uncle Hub that he doesn’t know what to believe any more and wants the truth. Here is Uncle Hub’s regrettably quotable response: "If you want to believe in something, then believe in it! Just because something isn’t true, that’s no reason you can’t believe in it!" Uncle Hub then goes on to list some ideals he thinks are worth believing in whether they’re true or not: that honor and virtue, not money and power, are what really matter; that good always triumphs over evil; that true love never dies.
Now, the fact is that there is truth to all these propositions, depending on how they are understood. I can even appreciate, in a sense, someone like Uncle Hub having the will to recognize the value of these ideals despite not being in an epistemological position to affirm their truth.
Nevertheless, expressed this way, this is bogus sentimentality, not belief or faith — and this notion casts a long shadow over the rest of the film. Even a revelation that goes some way toward mitigating potentially problematic implications in this regard feels less than entirely earned, like more sentimentality on the part of the filmmaker. Like Hub, McCanlies’s heart is in the right place, but his head could use a little straightening out.
The net effect is that Secondhand Lions is a decent but flawed film that had the potential to be a very good one.
On a side note, the film’s air of wistful nostalgia is enhanced by the presence of cartoon art by Berke Breathed ("Bloom County", "Outland"), the real hand behind the cartoons we see in framing sequences in the studio of the adult Walter, who has grown up to be a cartoonist. Along with Bill Watterson of Calvin & Hobbes, Breathed is one of the most sharply missed presences on the comic-strip page.
Addendum: Berke Breathed fans may be interested to know that after posting this review I received the following email from Mr. Breathed himself:
Thank you for the kind words in your review. You might not have heard that I’m bringing Opus back to the Sunday comic pages this Thanksgiving. I took your thoughtful lament to heart!
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.