Garth and Hub McCann are the kind of uncles we all wish we had. And Secondhand Lions, the story of a summer spent as reluctant mentors to a great-nephew they didn't know they had, is the kind of movie we all hope for.
Entertaining, thrilling and honestly sentimental, it's an equal-opportunity crowd-pleaser: Kids will love the adventure aspects, adults will like the memories it evokes of the fun relatives they grew up adoring, and everyone should appreciate the timeless emotions it evokes and the heartfelt performances it spotlights.
Haley Joel Osment, easing gracefully into adolescence, is Walter, a shy, withdrawn boy whose gold-digging mom (Kyra Sedgwick) thinks she's finally hit the mother lode: turns out she has a pair of kooky old uncles with a million dollars or so stashed on their rundown farm. Mom leaves Walter with her uncles for the summer, instructing him to be sure and find out where the money is hidden.
But Walter is a reluctant participant in the scheme, and Uncles Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall) are reluctant baby sitters. Yet a bond soon develops between the three. Garth and Hub are simply too kooky for most people to tolerate, even though relatives and salesmen keep dropping by to see if they can pry away some of that money they're supposed to have, but Walter senses a pair of kindred spirits; after all, the three share a sense of being social outcasts. And no matter how gruff they act toward him, it always seems more of a front than genuine meanness.
Plus, these two geezers are fun, taking potshots at the salesmen, buying an old circus lion to live on the farm and regaling Walter with tall tales of their lives as young men, when they fought in wars, rescued princesses from their evil oppressors and basically lived larger than life. They may be ornery old cusses, but they're Walter's ornery old cusses, and he grows to like being around them.
Caine and Duvall wear their roles like comfortable old shoes. They're reprising characters they've played before, but without a trace of fatigue or boredom. Duvall effortlessly dominates every scene he's in; his Hub hates that he's getting old, that he's no longer the lion he was in his youth (that old circus cat isn't the only secondhand lion on this farm). But time with Walter helps Hub realize there's some purpose in his life yet.
There's a terrific sense of wonder permeating the film, as Walter's eyes are opened to life's possibilities by men who had almost forgotten about them. True, there's not much we haven't seen before, but writer-director Tim McCanlies (who wrote the delightful animated The Iron Giant) manipulates events with a gentle touch, allowing his film's magic to work quietly and efficiently. Secondhand Lions is about possibilities and believing they never end. What's not to like there?
Starring Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, Haley Joel Osment
Directed by Tom McCanlies
Released by New Line Cinema
Rated PG (thematic material, language, action violence)
Time 107 minutes
Sun score: *** 1/2