The opening moments of Secondhand Lions might be a whimsical tribute to its biggest star. A biplane carrying Robert Duvall careens through the air, buoyed by bombastic musical fanfare. For a moment, it looks like Colonel Kilgore (Apocalypse Now) has retired and become the Red Baron.
And with that, we plunge headlong into a fast-paced feature that bears a striking structural resemblance to this year’s other above-average family film, Holes. Both are coming-of-age stories—realistic dramas that flirt with fairy-tale whimsy. And each is a time-hopping tale of one family’s remarkable history, buried treasure, dangerous animals, exotic Indiana Jones-style adventure and a host of ethical lessons.
Writer-director Tim McCanlies also returns to some of the themes he explored in his script for the underrated animated gem The Iron Giant. Like Giant’s Hogarth, young Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is a boy without a father figure who becomes attached to older, more experienced characters—this time, to two half-crazy uncles named Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Michael Caine), instead of a malfunctioning robot. And once again, the boy’s relationship with his new hero gets upset by the meddling of a violent, arrogant investigator (Nicky Katt).
When Walter’s man-shopping mother (Kyra Sedgwick), a dishonest and irresponsible woman, abandons him on a farm to spend the summer with the pair of eccentric geezers, she gives him troubling instructions: She wants him to find the fortune the uncles are rumored to have hidden. So Walter, wounded and frightened, whiles away hours on the front porch with his reluctant guardians. Eventually, Garth begins to narrate the adventures he and Hub had when they were young. As he explains, Walter’s fear transforms to a mix of awe and disbelief. We get flashbacks of rowdy action—clearly enhanced by Walter’s imagination—in which Hub and Garth rescue a princess, win a fortune and battle a sneering sheik. Meanwhile, back on the porch, old Hub chews his tobacco, cusses and watches for salesman to approach the house so he can open fire on them with his shotgun.
While Walter needs a role model, his uncles need help, too. Both are slowing down, burdened by age, loss and an abiding sense of "uselessness." Thus the story reflects important truths about how grownups can find purpose in passing their experience and wisdom to the young, instead of merely feeding off nostalgia. It also emphasizes the need each child has for a mother and a father.
Much of that potential is, however, unfulfilled, because McCanlies crowds his small stage with too many platitudes. Worse, every lesson is delivered with a heavy helping of canned emotion, accompanied by Patrick Doyle’s musical exclamation points.
Still, there is much to enjoy. Duvall and Caine bring subtle complexity and rugged authenticity to their enjoyable, if not Oscar-worthy, performances. An amusing supporting cast of animals—dogs, a pig, a giraffe, and a lion—gets some laughs. Cinematographer Jack Green (Unforgiven) finds some wonderful moments in moonlight on a lake. These days, any family movie with a little beauty, some poetry and the guts to assert that a child needs a supportive mother and a loving father is a step in the right direction.
With his performances in The Sixth Sense and A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), Haley Joel Osment proved he can access deep reservoirs of emotion playing complex heroes in a cruel world. Here, however, he might have been miscast. His performance is a tad too intense for a film that is light, tongue-in-cheek, even cartoonish. And yet, you can’t take your eyes off him. It is fascinating to hear his changing voice and see the final days of his cherubic face as it catches up with his frame, which is taller and more angular. In that sense, he underlines the film’s focus on the temporality of youth and the heavier responsibilities that come with growing up.
As moviegoers these days are offered irresponsibly made "family films" and movies that aim too low, perhaps there should be hearty applause for one that tries to do too much good in its small space of time.