September 25, 2003

Second Hand Lions

Print More

There is at least one certainty surrounding a film like Second Hand Lions, with a poster featuring such names as Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, and Haley Joel Osment: it will find success luring in both children and adults. However, it is entirely uncertain whether such a film can connect with either audience.

Although clearly geared towards children, the film seems stuck in some kind of middle ground. It is not zany or fantastic enough to entertain children in the way a Disney movie can. On the other hand, the film is, at times, too simple and childish for adults to really appreciate.

Lions is the story of Walter (Osment), son of a perpetually ditzy mother who drops him off to live with his mysterious uncles while she goes and lives it up in Vegas. His uncles, Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine), are two shotgun wielding, tobacco spitting, no-nonsense retirees rumored to have disappeared for forty years only to reappear with millions of dollars hidden on their vast Texas ranch. Over the summer, Walter is treated to tales of his uncles’ past — time spent in Africa fighting for the French foreign legion, battling sheiks, and winning over exotic princesses — all while tending to the farm and caring for an old circus lion the two uncles purchased.

For the first hour, I admit that I was entertained. At times, the film gives itself over to a wonderful and childish imagination; spaces in the mind as vast and colorful as the distant continent of Africa. Whether or not the stories Walter’s uncles tell him are true is unimportant. What matters is that we, like Walter, become immersed in them and swept away off the dry, Texas landscape.

Unfortunately, the film perpetually reminds us of the reality at hand, and dips back down into an unnecessarily saddening scenario between Walter and his family. His mother is almost too cruel, so oblivious and devoid of feeling that it seems surreal. This kind of issue young children will not understand, and the average adult will likely be turned off by. When Walter’s mother returns late in the film, only to try and con him into telling her where his uncles’ money is hidden, it is almost unbearable to watch.

Osment, now pubescent, is still cast in his now patented role of the ‘yet to blossom, timid but good natured’ kid who can’t do wrong. In each scene, he brings the same shy smile and innocently probing eyes previously seen in films such as Pay it Forward and The Sixth Sense. He grows, has a few good cries, and feels happy at the end. His character leaves us with few surprises, and before ten minutes have passed, we come to expect the transformation from hapless boy to assertive young man.

Most satisfying are Caine and Duvall, who, in their cinematic immortality, threaten at times to steal the entire film. Without their dynamic and charismatic personas, the film would likely be devoid of personality, as its other characters offer little more than one dimensional caricatures.

Don’t get me wrong, children will be entertained by Second Hand Lions. But to truly be a children’s film, it takes something funnier and more fantastic than a rather somber coming of age story. The film, like its boy protagonist, seems internally confused; uncertain of who it is reaching out for, or even if it is reaching out at all.

Archived article by Zach Jones