U.S. Release Date: September 19, 2003
Distributor: New Line
Writer: Tim McCanlies
Composer: Patrick Doyle
Cast: Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment, Josh Lucas
Running Time: 1 hour and 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (thematic material, language and action violence)

The Boy Who Would Be King
by Scott Holleran

A gentle yet powerful story is the focus of the year's best picture Secondhand Lions. Writer and director Tim McCanlies's benevolent tale echoes the subtle themes of his 1999 animated feature The Iron Giant: independence, integrity and free will.

McCanlies has created an original plot about a 14-year-old boy (Haley Joel Osment) who is abandoned by his mother (a juicy role for the sparkling Kyra Sedgwick) to the care of two grumpy old coots, played by Michael Caine and Robert Duvall. Despite an awkward beginning, the boy's summer with his eccentric uncles is soon filled with guns, fights and a lifetime of lessons sparked by the swashbuckling adventures of long-ago lives.

The first 30 minutes are too slow and almost surreal after Osment's character, Walter, is dropped by Mama faster than a bad hand at the poker table. Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine) are unbearably gruff to the child—there's too much time spent on milking their tough exteriors for laughs—but McCanlies knows his territory.

Almost every nook and cranny of his picture, from craggy old faces and tall blades of grass to soft lens flashbacks in faraway lands, is another layer in the story of great men, a good boy and the screen's most endearing lioness since Born Free.

A subplot about the legend of the uncles' supposed fortune is the movie's only serious conflict. It sets up the central theme that breaking free is the first step toward a self-made soul. That Walter's mother is the source of pain—and that love, not blood, makes a good father—is a welcome departure from Hollywood's typical routine.

This is classic storytelling with rugged lines and moving pictures. Much is said without words—with the stillness of a man beside a pond, with a bright young loner making his way up a country road, with a moonlight embrace. When McCanlies uses words, they matter. A scene in which Duvall's honorable character confronts a young thug makes you want to stand up and cheer for everything decent in the world, and it feels as if that's exactly what's at stake.

Jack Green's lush photography evokes a summer in Texas and a handsome hero on a white horse with equal reverence, and Patrick Doyle's music offers deliverance to a wistful, not sentimental, coming of age.

Caine, in his best role since The Cider House Rules, is understated. Though his accent sounds more western Pennsylvania than Texas at times, his final scenes nearly steal the show. Meanwhile, Josh Lucas (Sweet Home Alabama) is especially strong in a small but pivotal role.

But Secondhand Lions belongs to Duvall, who's better with each performance. Duvall's old man is strong, steady and irascible. His primary achievement, however, lies in his ability to portray his soldier with a secret as unconquerable. His character's younger days (played by Christian Kane from TV's Angel) are told in breezy, Saturday-morning serial flashbacks that are sure to please.

There is tragedy, loss and pain, yet there isn't the faintest trace of suffering. Secondhand Lions is not modern. Its men are real. They spit when they ought to spit, they fight when they ought to fight, and they shoot guns like they mean it. Caine and Duvall pack the picture with a politically incorrect masculine drive that's both tough and tender.

Though New Line Cinema has marketed Secondhand Lions to families and doesn't seem to know whether to pitch this movie as "Grumpy Old Texans" or "The Slaughterhouse Rules," it's probably best suited to intelligent children over age 13.

As the unfortunate title suggests, there is room for improvement. The blissful theme falters with a mixed message about believing what's not true, but the movie's action speaks louder than occasionally contradictory words. Though he has matured since the days he saw dead people in The Sixth Sense, Osment is too pleading.

Some might see Secondhand Lions as a slice of life. If it is, it's a bigger, better slice of a life lived large. McCanlies' movie is most powerful as that rare Hollywood production: an elegy to the bond between man and boy—a bond that's formed when a child learns to become a man at the hands of an old soul who finally masters the art of manhood.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
Part of New Line Cinema's Platinum series, the DVD edition of Secondhand Lions comes complete with both pan and scan and widescreen versions of the movie, alternate scenes, theatrical trailer, television spots, visual effects comparisons and commentary from writer and director Tim McCanlies. Featurettes include One Screenplay's Wild Ride in Hollywood, Haley Joel Osment: An Actor Comes of Age and an on-the-set piece. An alternate ending—in fact, several deleted scenes—puts a different spin on things.

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