I'm Hub McCann. I've fought in two World Wars and countless smaller ones on three continents. I led thousands of men into battle with everything from horses and swords to artillery and tanks. I've seen the headwaters of the Nile, and tribes of natives no white man had ever seen before. I've won and lost a dozen fortunes, killed many men, and loved only one woman. That's who I am.
What does a boy need to know to become a man? In this delightful family film from New Line, we find one potential answer, as Walter Caldwell (Haley Joel Osment, The Sixth Sense) transforms into a hale and hearty young man over the course of a magical summer spent under the tutelage of his eccentric, curmudgeonly uncles Hub (Robert Duvall, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) and Garth (Michael Caine, Noises Off, Miss Congeniality) McCann.
Facts of the Case
When young Walter's mother Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) dumps him with two crotchety old uncles, he has no idea what he's getting into. She has two motives for dropping him with them for the summer; first and foremost, it frees her up to run off to Vegas with her newfound boyfriend, Stan. It also has crossed her mind that the two old uncles are rumored to have millions of dollars stashed away, they have no heirs, and it wouldn't hurt either her or Walter if he were to get into their good graces. Walter is a quiet, smallish kid, sort of a weenie, really, and he is unprepared for what he finds.
The two old uncles are mysterious, misanthropic creatures who don't much like relatives, don't much like Walter, and really don't much like anything—apart from shooting things, that is. Their idea of a pleasant afternoon is sitting on the front porch, drinking iced tea and waiting for traveling salesmen to show up so they can use the unsuspecting peddlers for target practice. They might beat a gang of punk teenagers to a bloody pulp, and then invite them home for supper and some lessons in Hub's particular brand of wisdom, his "what every boy needs to know about being a man" speech. These two old men do what they can to keep up a level of excitement and adventure to which they have become accustomed, In truth, before Walter shows up, there is a sense that they are just hanging around, waiting to die, preferably in one of Hub's dangerous attempts at adventure; "natural causes" or "old age" are worst-case scenarios.
As Walter spends the summer with the two uncles, he learns how they made their money and why they disappeared from Texas for almost forty years. According to Garth, the pair left Texas to see Europe just about the time the Kaiser's army set out to do the same. They wound up Shanghaied into the French Foreign Legion, and had a collection of adventures that would have made Indiana Jones envious, including run-ins with an evil sheik and a beautiful princess, and of course fabulous wealth. Walter listens to Garth's stories (related in a series of thrilling flashbacks), with a sense of wonder. At first he does not know whether to believe the stories, but he soon learns one of the central truths of the film: some things are important for a man to believe in, whether they are true or not; the important thing is believing.
The other explanation that Walter hears, from his mother and others, is a bit less romantic, if almost as exciting. In this version, the two men spent forty years as fugitives from justice, a pair of famous Depression-era bank robbers know as the Santa Claus Bandits, and their hidden millions are the ill-gotten fruits of their nefarious labors.
Regardless of which story may be true, the two old uncles take a liking to Walter. As the three spend the summer together he grows into young adulthood; they teach him the secrets of what being a man is about, and he teaches them what being part of a family is about.
Secondhand Lions is that rare example of a family film that one doesn't need to be an eight-year-old to enjoy. The story is charming, with just enough mystery and adventure to keep everyone interested.
The three principal actors in this film give outstanding, lifelike performances. Caine and Duvall are delightful as the crotchety but loveable uncles. Who but Duvall could deliver a line like "Dammit, kid, it ain't our fault you've got a lousy damn mother," and turn it into a statement of humanity and sympathy?
Haley Joel Osment has undergone a remarkable transformation in the past few years, from the almost eerily precocious child star of The Sixth Sense to a quite affable and self-confident young actor. Not only is he more talented than anyone else his age, he has made the transition from child to young adult with far more grace and far less awkwardness than anyone I ever knew at that age. Of course, every young actor should be so lucky as to have a movie like Secondhand Lions come along right when he is at that stage in life. Walter's transition from weenie boy to promising young man captures exactly the same sort of change in Osment. Director Tim McCanlies capitalized on Osment's coming of age by shooting the film in sequence over the course of a long Texas summer, capturing the changes in the actor and incorporating them into the story of Walter. Osment just gets better and better as his career progresses, and at times when watching him I get the sense that he is channeling Jimmy Stewart; he has the same sort of intelligence and kind, good nature that Stewart showed in his younger, pre-WWII roles.
Video features a choice between widescreen and full screen on the same side of the disc. The widescreen option is a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Color and detail are both outstanding, just as one would expect from New Line. There are flaws, however. The DVD format still seems to have a lot of trouble with something as simple as a blue sky. McCanlies and co. shot the movie in Texas specifically to take advantage of the magnificent Texas skies; it is unfortunate that they look so noisy on this DVD. This is true of almost all films, but I do wonder if the extra space taken up by having both the widescreen and hack-and-scan versions on one disc might not have been put to better use improving the picture quality and reducing the visual noise just a bit better.
Audio choices include Dolby Digital EX 5.1 Surround, and Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, both in English. The 5.1 mix sounds just fine, with nice crispness and clarity, and a nice mix of surround effects. In particular, it reproduces very nicely the score by Patrick Doyle, one of the little joys of the film. This is especially evident during the flashback sequences to the two uncles in their younger days, where it evokes the kind of excitement and emotion that one would expect from John Williams or Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
New Line is the unquestioned champion when it comes to DVD special editions and quality extra materials, and this Secondhand Lions disc is no exception. New Line gives us a two-sided disc, with the film and commentary on one side, and the bulk of the special features on the other. At least, that's how I'm told the retail version looks; the pre-release screener I received is actually two separate discs, an arrangement I tend to prefer. In any case, this is a special edition in all but name.
The extra content starts with a commentary track by writer/director Tim McCanlies. McCanlies had a relatively successful career in mainstream Hollywood before getting fed up and moving back to Texas. It was during this time of relative exile that he first got the idea for Secondhand Lions. He mentions in his commentary track that he is a fan of DVD commentaries; he claims his favorite is William Goldman's discussion on The Princess Bride special edition. He likes commentaries with pauses, where the filmmaker sits back and just takes time to enjoy the movie. This is perhaps a bit unfortunate, because he does much the same thing in this commentary. There is a lot of exposition in his remarks, filling in a lot of information that people who have watched the film once will already know. He does give some useful information about his creative process and the struggles he had over a decade to bring his idea to the screen.
McCanlies provides further optional commentary for the ten deleted and/or alternate scenes on Side Two of the disc. These scenes are presented as finished and release-ready, in the same aspect ratio as the film itself, with English or Spanish subtitles. For the most part, cutting out these scenes was a shame, because they provide important depth to the story of Walter and the two uncles. In particular, I liked the increased sense of hostility when Walter and the old men first meet; in the finished version, it seems that the two codgers warm up to him a little too quickly and easily. There are also more scenes that flesh out the bank robber version of the two brothers' past, including some clever clues that would have created more enjoyable ambiguity and mystery for the audience.
Of the collection of featurettes, probably the most interesting and touching is Haley Joel Osment: An Actor Comes of Age. This is a fascinating look at the impressive young actor as he speaks seriously and philosophically about his life and his work, and growing into the art of acting. He comes across as a surprisingly ordinary kid, who goes to school and runs lights for the class play, but at the same time unusually thoughtful about his occupation, his place in the public eye, and the responsibility he feels as a result to "keep [his] record clean." Also, in this featurette there is even more focus on the character Walter's growing up process, and how it in many ways reflects and captures on film Osment's own coming of age.
Two other featurettes, each running about 26 minutes, detail the process of developing and creating Secondhand Lions. Secondhand Lions: One Screenplay's Wild Ride in Hollywood details the ten-year quest that McCanlies undertook to bring his vision to the screen. The other is On the Set with Secondhand Lions, which reinforces a lot of material covered elsewhere. I did gain one valuable insight into the difference between real actors and hacks, however: real actors, such as Osment, Caine, and Duvall, refer to their characters in third person. Osment refers to his character throughout as "Walter." Hacks, such as those seen in several other films, refer to their characters in first person, i.e. "I do this and my mother does that," et cetera. That's my theory, anyway, and I will be paying closer attention to this distinction in the future.
In addition to all this, there is a considerable amount of DVD-ROM and online content. Unfortunately, viewing it requires the use of the heinous InterActual spyware/player. However, some neat goodies here almost make it worth the trouble. One of the better features is a script-to-screen comparison, allowing the viewer to read along and see the differences between the page and the finished film. This option also allows one to print the script, either as a whole or by chapters. Another feature is the "scene medley" option, which presents all of the Hub/Garth flashback sequences as one continuous story; this is a nice touch, and it is clear that their story would have made a fun movie in its own right. Beyond this, the DVD-ROM and online features become less and less interesting. Also, I still do not fully trust the InterActual software; even though I supposedly had the spyware options disabled, my network connection indicated furious activity the whole time InterActual was running.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is a weakness to this film, it is in the framing device featuring Josh Lucas as an older Walter. By the time the end of the film comes, we as an audience have invested so much emotional attachment in Osment's version of the character that it becomes difficult to accept Lucas and transfer our emotions to him. This is no knock against Lucas, who does a fine job in his short scenes, but it is a structural problem that the film does not entirely solve. McCanlies notes this in his commentary track; there was originally a much longer ending sequence, but he opted for the shorter version in order to address this problem; after seeing the original ending (provided as one of the many deleted scenes), I tend to think he made exactly the wrong choice, and actually exacerbated the problem. The longer ending gives Lucas time to reestablish himself as Walter, and allows us as the audience to adjust and accept him. The larger problem with both endings is that there are just too many questions that are resolved. To me it seems that McCanlies should have left more mystery and more unanswered questions at the end of the film. In any case, the longer ending answers much the same questions as the theatrical version, only with a bit more style and fun.
As Hub tells the young Walter, there are some things that a man has to believe in. It doesn't matter if they are true or not; what matters is believing. Every kid should have a dad, a grandpa, or a crotchety old uncle who tells him that sometime. Everyone wishes they had an experience like Walter's at some point in their childhood, or at least they will after seeing Secondhand Lions.
Not guilty! A delight of a film and a great DVD from New Line.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• Commentary by Director Tim McCanlies
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