Secondhand Lions

Secondhand Lions (2003)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Haley Joel Osment, Kyra Sedgwick
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurettes, Theatrical Trailers, TV Spots, DVD-ROM Features

Released theatrically last year by New Line Cinema and just now available on DVD, Tim McCanlies’ "Secondhand Lions" is that rarest of rarities: a family film that targets the parents as much as the kids. Rather than rely on CGI or hip of-the-moment cultural humor, as in the Pixar movies or "Shrek" (that’s not a bash to those movies, honest), "Secondhand Lions" draws on the power of sterling acting and a truly heartfelt story.

Michael Caine and Robert Duvall play Garth and Hub McCann, world adventurers spending their retirement in 1950s Austin, sitting on their porch and shooting just above the heads of traveling salesmen. Literally dumped on their doorstep is Walter (Haley Joel Osment), a nephew they never knew they had and left by his scheming mother (Kyra Sedgwick) who tells Walter of how they disappeared for over forty years and their distant relatives now believe the brothers are harboring a vast fortune. Everyone is wary of each other at first; Walter has to deal with their eccentric target practice and the brothers are faced with having to be responsible. Garth warms up to Walter first. When asked about their disappearance, he spins a tale straight out of "Boys Life" magazine with Hub battling a mysterious Arab sheik for the hand of Princess Jasmine, his one true love. As Walter slowly warms up to the McCanns and they in turn realize that they are still needed, the trio come to grips with greedy relatives, the care of aging wildlife (as in a literal "secondhand" lion) and the iron-clad belief that sometimes what we want to believe is more powerful than the truth.

Sounds like sugary, sentimental goo, right? In lesser hands, that’s just where it might have gone. What sets this apart from other, more calculated family fare is the overwhelming sense that for everyone involved, this movie was a labor of love. (The extras eventually bear that out.) From McCanlies’ touching but not-too-feely script and no-nonsense direction to the just broad enough performances of the three leads, this is a "meat-and-potatoes" family movie: not arty but extremely satisfying and fulfilling. Pairing Caine and Duvall was a masterstroke; their characters are larger than life and having two of cinema’s greatest actors adds just the right amount of baggage for their roles. But the film’s emotional center is Osment’s Walter. He is the audience surrogate and his transformation from a frightened, cynical child to a hopeful, imaginative young man echoes the classic children’s storybook hero, embodied in such watershed live-action children’s movies as "The Yearling" and "The Black Stallion." Yes, the pig that think it’s a dog and the cuddly, old lion might hearken back to "Zebra In The Kitchen" kiddie-matinee fare, but McCanlies truly believes in Garth, Hub and Walter and their adventures together.

The DVD is a two-sided, single disc affair. Side 1 offers the film in both full-frame and letterbox. The 1.85 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> option could not look better with an immaculate picture, exceptional detail and solidly rendered hues. In addition to the accurate color rendition, blacks are deep and consistent bringing out the contrasts between the dusty Texas landscape and Garth’s Arabian Nights-esque story-within-a-story. I glanced at the full-frame version and spot checks indicate it to be exactly the same quality as the <$PS,widescreen>. I’d stick with the <$PS,widescreen> edition; spaces are real important in this movie (heck, it takes place in Texas!) and they are much better served in 1.85 than 1.33.

The <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 EX soundtrack is very active with an expansive sound field, punctuated with frequent discrete sound effects in the rear channels. At times, the score wells up a little too large, but overall I found the audio mix to be thoughtful, balanced and appropriate. My left and right surround speakers seemed to be always busy, either with rustling winds, plane engines or horse hoof beats panning from back to front and side-to-side. A somewhat comparable matrix surround track is also included but if you have the capability stick with the discrete soundtrack.

The extras are numerous, starting with McCanlies’ feature-length <$commentary,audio commentary> on side 1. McCanlies’ energy and enthusiasm for the project comes across in his virtually non-stop narration. Occasionally, he slips into the "Cliffs Notes" mode of commentary where he simply explains the action on screen but he unflaggingly extols the virtues of his cast and crew while pointing out some of the behind-the-scenes variables (i.e. the film was shot in narrative sequence, which he thought aided the actors) and themes (he envisioned the brothers as elderly "Indiana Jones" types).

Side two houses the bulk of the supplements. Three featurettes cover very different aspects of the production. "On The Set with ‘Secondhand Lions’" runs twenty six minutes and plays like a standard "making-of" background piece with on-set sound bites, filmmaking footage and clips. "Haley Joel Osment: An Actor Comes Of Age" (12 minutes) showcases his career to date with interviews with Osment and McCanlies. The most intriguing featurette is "’Secondhand Lions:’ A Screenplay’s Wild Ride in Hollywood." A little under thirty minutes, this segment details basically how McCanlies got the film produced. One would think simple stuff, but it charts the tortuous journey of how the script bounced around for ten years and a couple of studios, eventually settling in at New Line. Video interviews with McCanlies and the various producers of the film show, if anything, the labyrinthine difficulties of getting something green lighted, let alone produced and distributed. (I think this featurette should be required viewing for anyone who wishes to pursue a career in the movie industry.)

Nine deleted/alternate scenes are included, along with optional commentary by McCanlies. He explains how most of the snippets were lost mostly for pacing. The deletions do not add much to the story, save for a couple of extra fantasy sequences inside Walter’s head that are kind of fun. Kudos to New Line for presenting them in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and 5.1 audio.

Two scenes comprise the "Visual Effects Comparisons" section where top and bottom screens show how visual effects were added to create the illusion of being in a turn-of-the-century European port and amid hundreds of Foreign Legion soldiers. A theatrical trailer, presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and 5.1 audio and seven TV spots highlight the advertising of the film, with the TV spots categorized according to their particular target audience or slant, like trumpeting critics’ endorsements. (It helped that the music used for the trailer and TV spots were excerpts from James Horner’s rousing score for "The Rocketeer.") Under a section entitled "More From New Line," trailers for "Elf" and "Laws of Attraction" are presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> and 5.1 audio.

"Secondhand Lions" really deserves a look. Maybe it didn’t set the box office on fire, but it should have. Any movie told with this much heart and so much goodwill toward its characters and audience demands our attention.