I have this recurring fantasy about watching Haley Joel Osment being torn to pieces by wild lions, so when a half-starved lion chases Osment through a cornfield halfway through “Secondhand Lions,” I thought my dream was about to come true. But it’s a Disney movie, so the lion just cuddles him and, alas, part of me dies inside.
Before Walter (Osment) meets the lion, his irresponsible mother leaves him on the doorstep of his great uncles Hub (Robert Duvall) and Garth’s (Michael Caine) home. The uncles have had a lifetime of adventures and have gained a massive fortune, but the two are friendless and alone. They’ve settled down on a farm to wait for death, certain that nothing good can come before then. Walter, meanwhile, has been lied to his whole life and has trouble trusting anyone, yet he is strangely compelled by his uncles’ wild tales of their youth. Anybody else see where this is going? Here’s a hint: it involves lots of hugging.
That’s really the whole problem with “Secondhand Lions.” Deep down, it’s not a bad movie. But its strengths are buried under a thick layer of sugary sweet Disney schmaltz. It should be noted that Duvall and Caine are a marvelous team – so good they should look into making a real movie together. The biggest mistake “Lions'” is focusing on the budding and exceedingly trite bond between Walter and his uncles. The film had the potential to be a lighthearted meditation on losing identity to the ravages of age. However, “Lions” failed to meet the viewers’ expectations.
The directing, courtesy of the film’s writer, Tim McCanlies, is limp and inept, but at least it’s not obtrusive. The same can’t be said for the script, however. This is the guy who gave us “The Iron Giant,” one of the most sophisticated children’s movies ever made. And now we get this wet-eyed, simpering tale, replete with flashbacks within flashbacks, fudged plot contrivances and corny “aww, shucks” dialogue. Sure, there are flashes of inspiration and genuinely funny moments, and even a few emotionally heavy scenes that should be the rule and not the exception. But it’s a pain to wade through all the film’s syrup to pick up the gleaming shards of what could have been.