A quirky (good quirky) family drama, "Secondhand Lions" is a charming little film with three excellent lead performances. Most of the story, shown within flashback, takes place in the 1950's. Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is being taken by his mother (Kyra Sedgwick) to stay a while with uncles Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall), who - as legend has it - have a couple million dollars stashed away somewhere in their house. She's trying to find a rich man to marry, but will certainly settle for trying to stick Walter in the house to try and convince the uncles to include her and him in their will.
Of course, there's tension almost immediately, as Walter finds himself in a house without a phone or television. The two uncles only have one form of entertainment - using the salesmen who drive up to their house to try and get some of the pair's cash for target practice. Relatives show up, eager to part the uncles from their money, but Walter seems different to them, simply looking for a family that isn't provided by his missing mother.
The uncles and Walter eventually do bond, although thankfully, there's no Big Emotional Speeches. Interestingly enough, "Secondhand Lions" starts to turn in a few unexpected directions. Hub and Garth try to get a lion on their giant property to try and hunt (when I'd guess that the Lion would be the one hunting the two old men), but the beast just sits there. Walter, who has never had a pet before, wants to keep it. The uncles say "yes", while the lion seems to be thinking, "this little actor might make a good snack later."
All kidding aside, one of the film's main subplots has Garth telling the tales of the uncle's adventures in Africa, where the two engaged in plenty of sword battles and Hub wooed one Princess Jasmine. Yet, others believe that the two were actually bank robers - even taking from Al Capone at one point - and have since settled down to retirement. Maybe there isn't any fortune. Yet, as Hub says, "Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things that a man needs to believe in most." The film isn't entirely interested in telling a flowing story - like one of Garth's tales, "Secondhand Lions" rambles and seems pieced together with different episodes. However, while the story seems just held together, it certainly has great storytellers behind it.
In his second superb performance of the year (alongside "Open Range"), Duvall does a terrific job bringing strength and convinction to the character of Hub, as he shows a strong outside, but manages to suggest other layers underneath. Caine, who puts on a convincing accent, is the more soft-spoken of the two uncles, yet his intelligent, warm performance is quite compelling. Haley Joel Osment, famed for his role in "Sixth Sense" and last seen in "A.I." doesn't quite match up to his two co-stars, but he does a fine job, nevertheless. Also, look for beautiful cinematography from frequent Clint Eastwood collaborator Jack N. Green ("Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil").
Overall, I liked the film. The film rambles at times, but it rambles like a good, old-fashioned story and proceeds without trying to manipulate. It's not the sappy, sentimental film that the trailers sold it as (although it hits a few briefly sappy notes), but instead a fine family drama whose highlight is two stellar performances from two of the best actors around. I'm not sure if the movie quite needed all of the elements of the ending, but I really didn't feel it hurt an otherwise memorable little film.
Note: There is a little bit of violence/scariness that may upset very young viewers, but I think most older children will enjoy this film.
VIDEO: "Secondhand Lions" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and 1.33:1 pan & scan on the dual-layered side of the disc, with the two options available from the main menu. The presentation is pretty enjoyable, although a few minor issues take this down from the usual New Line standards. Sharpness and detail are certainly not a problem, as the sun-drenched picture offered excellent definition and clarity.
Colors look rich and strongly reproduced, with vivid tones and excellent saturation. Flesh tones are accurate, while black level was quite solid. However, there's some fairly noticable edge enhancement, which was surprising. The print appeared to be in very fine condition, aside from a bit of soft grain in a few scenes. A few minor compression artifacts showed up, as well. Overall, this is very good, but not great.
SOUND: New Line Home Video presents "Secondhand Lions" in Dolby Digital 5.1-EX. While not exactly "Armageddon", "Secondhand Lions" does have excellent sound design, for what is largely a dialogue-driven drama. Surrounds kick in occasionally, providing some well-recorded, discrete sound effects and pleasing ambience. Dialogue, music and effects are clearly recorded, and there's a decent bass punch now and then, as well.
EXTRAS: Writer/director Tim McCanlies provides a fast-talking (but excellent) commentary. Rarely ever stopping to take a breath, McCanlies goes over a great deal of ground, chatting about developing characters, the excitement of working with the three leads, talking about scenes that were deleted (available elsewhere on the DVD) and chatting about problems that arose during shooting. This is a very enthusiastic, enjoyable commentary that has barely a moment of silence.
Flip the DVD over, and you'll find the remainder of the DVD's supplements. First off is "Secondhand Lions: One Screenplay's Wild Ride in Hollywood". In this 26-minute documentary, writer/director Tim McCanlies takes us on a tour of the development of the screenplay, talking about his inspiration for the characters and then discussing how the script started to get the usual "notes" once a studio started to get interested in it, which dismayed the writer/director to the point where he started sending rather heated messages to the studio executives in charge of the picture. There's also some very interesting stories about ideas for the film and casting (Redford/Newman, for example) and where the project went after the first studio option expired. Overall, this is an insightful and enjoyable tale of how one film climbed the mountain of the studio system.
Next is a 26-minute "making of" documentary. While this documentary was informative about shooting (talking about shooting the film in-sequence, for example), characters and story, the piece does get a little weighed down at times with all the talk of how wonderful everyone was to work with. Rounding out the documentaries is a short piece on star Haley Joel Osment. A couple of visual effects comparisons are also included.
Finally, we get the film's trailer and TV spots, as well as trailers for "Elf" and the upcoming Pierce Brosnan/Julianne Moore comedy "Laws of Attraction". DVD-ROM features, including a script-to-screen viewer, weblinks and more, are also included.
Final Thoughts: A modest hit in theaters, this good-natured and very well-acted family drama gets stellar treatment on DVD from New Line, with excellent supplements and presentation. Highly recommended.
The Film *** 1/2