There's no denying that there's something quaintly appealing about Secondhand Lions, a family film that plays like a slow skim through a Boy's Life magazine. Unfortunately, writer-director Tim McCanlies--who previously penned the charming animated film The Iron Giant--doesn't know where to draw the line. Or, worse, he does, making this live-action comedy-drama feel as real as an animated cartoon or a line-drawn Sunday funny.
Secondhand Lions begins promisingly, framed as the adult flashback of a successful cartoonist named Walter (played in the present by Josh Lucas). His comic strip "Walt and Jasmine"--drawn for the film by the great Berkeley Breathed (Bloom County)--apes "Calvin & Hobbes" as a whimsical tale of a boy and his porcine companion. The glimpse of "Walt and Jasmine" gives way to the story of how 14-year-old Walter (Haley Joel Osment) was raised by two lovable old movie coots: Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth (Michael Caine). Party on, Oscar winners!
Unsurprisingly, Duvall and Caine enliven Secondhand Lions considerably with their poky-prickly charm, but even Duvall's no-B.S. style has its limits. Osment takes more naturally to the sap, with another technically proficient performance bounced off his reflecting pool eyes and happy-sad facial muscles. If not for his cleverly employed voice-changing, one might suspect he is Spielberg's artificial intelligence come to life.
Anyway, Hub and Garth grumpily but imperturbably while away their autumn years on a secluded farm, scaring away travelling salesmen with their buckshot and trying on hobbies--like raising vegetables or rebuilding biplanes--for size. When Walt's grotesquely unfit mother Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) dumps the boy on them for an indefinite stay, the pair reluctantly make a hobby of tending the "jumpy little fella." Mae instructs Walt to find the old men's reputed hidden fortune, promising to return to collect him and what's coming to her, inheritance-wise. Meanwhile, the old men mail-order a metaphorical secondhand circus lion, ostensibly for target practice. But they just can't bear to shoot the sickly thing ("wouldn't be sporting"), which proves to have a bit of life left in it (wait, just like the grumpy old men!).
McCanlies carries this all off for a while, goosing the slim, episodic narrative about the "adventures" of the boy and his coots with flashbacks within the flashback. These tales of the young and vital Hub and Garth as globe-trotting adventurers display rather stunning production value and an old-fashioned, swashbuckling, Douglas Fairbanks-esque verve. Each of these flashbacks, though, is a passing fancy, transparently inserted when Walter's story bogs down.
And it does, slogging its way to an emotionally ugly climax that makes the film resemble Annie with a shot of testosterone. The story crumbles into incoherence, leaning heavily on the sentiment expressed by Hub: "Sometimes the things that may or may not be true are the things a man needs to believe in the most." That's all well and good, but parents may squirm at the scene where Walt unappealingly demands emancipation from his victim-complex mother in favor of his surrogate-father crackpots.