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Secondhand Lions

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 04/07/04 23:29:38

"Practically defines the word 'lovely'"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

It's a sign of the times that when great kids movies are talked about, the most recent ones are generally of the animated variety. 'Shrek', 'Toy Story', 'Chicken Run' etc are the ones held up as the pinnacle of what a kids movie should be, and very rarely will a live-action movie be mentioned. 'Secondhand Lions' should change this as it's the best non-animated kids feature I've seen in a long time.

And I was initially sceptical about seeing it. When my girlfriend picked up the box in the video shop, my general feeling was "Hmm, young boy bonds with two crotchety uncles and no doubt everyone will learn lessons from each other - YUK". But I let my feelings relent, and gave it a chance, which turned out to be the right decision.

Hayley Joel Osment is Walter, a young teenager in the 60's who has the misfortune of a flighty mother continually on the look-out for a new boyfriend and a quick buck. To achieve this aim she leaves Walter in the charge of her two uncles Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth (Michael Caine) who own a farm, a lot of dogs and who amuse themselves by taking potshots at local travelling businessmen. They're continually pestered by travelling salesmen because of a local legend that the two old men have millions of dollars stashed away. Walters mother is aware of this and leaves Walter to try and find out where the loot is hidden. But when Garth begins to regale Walter with tales of his and Hubs days in the foreign legion the issue of truth against fantasy comes to the fore.

Writer/director Tim McCanlies has taken equal parts 'Stand By Me', 'The Princess Bride', 'Big Fish' and 'Clarence the Cross-Eyed Lion' to craft something here that's continually beguiling and charming whilst never falling too heavily into schmaltz. There's a clever balance between the rustic life of the farm and the colourful adventures that Garth tells, that ensures 'Secondhand Lions' never becomes too fantastical or, worse, boring.

This balance therefore means that the younger kids will be kept entertained by the derring-do, rescue missions and near-escapes of the adventure sequences; whilst the older amongst us will appreciate the wit and blustering arguments between Hub and Garth as they become besieged by grasping relatives all after the money. It's that rare balance that only Pixar and co seem to have managed of late. And there's a great surreal tone running throughout 'Secondhand Lions' that involves the likes of giraffes, lions and WW1 bi-planes, but never becomes silly. It's this constant sense of invention and fun that makes the running time fly by.

'Secondhand Lions' also scores well with its performances. Osment is becoming a very capable actor who more than manages to hold his own against Caine and Duvall, and also engages the audiences sympathy as a lonely, abandoned boy, but never comes across as mawkish or manipulative. He may not see dead people anymore, but he can surely see a great career unfolding providing he keeps on making the right choices.

But this is undeniably Caine and Duvalls' show. I've never been the biggest fan of Caine, often accusing him in the past of simply re-hashing the same performance over and over again. But in 'Secondhand Lions' it works as a shade of his own persona as someone who has simply seen a lot of life and is content to relax now. His southern accent also convinces and he brings a twinkly-eyed charm to the film. But he is matched here by Duvall. When it comes to lists of the greatest actors, Duvall is quite often over-looked in favour of more fashionable names such as DeNiro, Pacino and Nicholson. That's a shame, because he's as good an actor as any of them and he shows it here. True, it's hardly a role to stretch him or to go alongside Colonel Kilgore or Tom Hagen in his list of greats, but he is superb as the more crotchety of the two. He blends the toughness of Hub, with a tender and witty side beautifully, and the scene where he takes own a gang of youths in a bar is worth the rental price alone.

For roles such as Hub and Garth, it would be easy to go over-the-top and make them easily sentimental or goofily stupid, so all credit to Caine and Duvall for underplaying the roles excellently whilst having a lot of fun with them. It gives a film both a heart and a hearty sense of humour.

It's good that they do underplay as the ending does veer too far into sentimentality, and there's a final twist that's as silly as it is unneccesary. But that thankfully doesn't diminish the warm tone that the film has previously generated.

It's probably too light-weight and frivolous to be considered a classic, but for something to keep the kids and adults entertained for a couple of hours you'd be hard pressed to do much better. Making a good live-action kids film seems to be a lost art so much praise to McCanlies for making such a sterling effort. And praise to Duvall and Caine too for reminding of us what they're both capable of. And if you're not blinking away a tear or two by the end...well I guess you've never really been a kid have you?

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