Don't get me wrong; I'm not complaining. The 2003 movie "Secondhand Lions" is a sweet little family film, made all the better by its two veteran stars, Michael Caine and Robert Duvall, and its younger star, Haley Joel Osment. No, I'm just wondering how studios make their decisions about re-releasing older films in high-definition picture and sound. It seems to me there are several criteria they might go by in selecting a candidate for Blu-ray transfer, like a film's audiovisual qualities, its popularity, or its critical reception. But "Secondhand Lions" is a fairly ordinary looking movie, only a modest box-office winner, and little more than a pleasantly enjoyable motion-picture experience.
I dunno. Life is a mystery. I suppose we should just be glad for what we get, and certainly "Secondhand Lions" is worth watching, even if it does get more than a bit drippy toward the end. It's a fantasy for the most part, with all three leads giving stellar performances in a lightweight framework, the kind of film that might appeal to children for its colorful adventure and to adults for its touching relationships. Or to no one if you don't like much sentimentality in your stories or much obvious moralizing.
A narrator tells the story as a remembrance of his from the mid Fifties, the narrator looking back on a childhood spent with his two eccentric, bachelor uncles in Texas. The two brothers, Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall), are a pair of old codgers who disappeared for forty years and returned only recently to buy and live out their lives in a big, dilapidated, ramshackle farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. Rumors abound that during their absence they had become either bank robbers or adventurers, and now that they've returned, they've hidden away a fortune in gold somewhere on their new property.
Walter (Haley Joel Osment) is the youngster involved, about twelve or thirteen years old at the time of the remembrance. His mother (Kyra Sedgewick), a greedy, irresponsible, no-good floozy, drops him off to spend a summer with the uncles, not because she thinks he'll enjoy the stay but because she wants to get rid of the kid for a while and hopes he'll be able to find the hiding place of the uncles' riches. Walter is not too keen on the idea but has to go along.
Needless to say, the two crotchety uncles are not too keen on the idea, either, of having to take care of a kid for the first time in their lives. Garth is the more sensitive brother and the more sensible one. It's a little disconcerting at first listening to Caine, famous for his Cockney-style English accent, speak in a Texas drawl, but consummate actor that he is, he brings it off, and before long we think nothing of it. Hub is the tougher, grumpier, more outspoken brother, the one who still enjoys a good barroom fight even at his age and then lecturing his defeated opponents afterwards about the necessity of achieving maturity in manhood. Wonderful stuff.
The viewer can probably anticipate much of what's going to happen. The uncles occupy their time using shotguns to chase off traveling salesmen and avaricious relatives, and their idea of "fishing" in the nearby pond is also one of using their shotguns. Walter doesn't know how to take them at first, until Garth starts telling him something of their history. Garth tells fabulous tales of the brothers' adventures in Europe and North Africa, of slave traders and harems and true love and evil sheiks and service in the French Foreign Legion. Garth pretty much mesmerizes young Walter, who doesn't know any more than the viewer if the stories are true or all just tall tales.
And that's when the film also begins to get so wayward, we start viewing it askance. When Garth tells the stories of his and his brother's youth, we get flashbacks within the remembrance within the movie, rather silly, far-fetched, swashbuckling escapades. Then, when the uncles decide to go big-game hunting on the farm by buying a mail-order African lion to shoot, we know the movie has definitely gone south. No, don't worry, it's a family picture. No one kills any lions. The lion eventually becomes a metaphor in the picture for the uncles themselves. It's that kind of film.
In the hands of its writer and director, Tim Canlies (a filmmaker most notable for his screenplay of "The Iron Giant"), "Secondhand Lions" sort of ambles along, taking its own good time about telling its story. It moseys along, I suppose you could say, the whole film resembling a tall tale. And, naturally, it ends with an important moral lesson about love and family and such. Would you have expected less?
Incidentally, I couldn't help noticing how much Haley Joel Osment in 2003 looked like a miniature Peyton Manning. Who knows? Maybe when he got older he became Manning, and we just don't know about it. In any case, the movie is a joy when Caine and Duvall are on screen and interacting; the rest of it is pretty flimsy, though agreeable, fluff.
It's not a very long movie at 109 minutes, so New Line use a single-layer BD25 for their VC-1 encode to reproduce the movie in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1. Colors are quite natural, deep, bright, and lush when necessary and realistically subdued the rest of the time. Definition is fine, probably as good as the original print. Facial tones can be a tad too dark at times, but the eye adjusts. And we find grain and noise at a minimum except in some wide expanses of sky.
Surprisingly, at least to me, the audio here is above average. Using a lossless Dolby TrueHD codec to replicate the soundtrack in 6.1 channels, the disc sounds pretty nice, with plenty of surround activity kicking in right from the beginning, a wide front-channel stereo spread, a silky smooth midrange, and an excellent musical bloom. This is not blockbuster sound, but it more than serves the movie.
There is a welcome assortment of extra items to enjoy on the disc, too. First up is an audio commentary by director Tim McCanlies, followed by a series of featurettes. "Secondhand Lions: One Screenplay's Wild Ride in Hollywood," twenty-six minutes, takes a look at how the screenplay finally came to the screen; "On the Set with Secondhand Lions," also twenty-six minutes, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking; "Haley Joel Osment: An Actor Comes of Age," twelve minutes, looks at the career of the young actor; and "Visual Effects Comparisons," two minutes, looks at the VFX in a couple of scenes. Then, we get ten additional or alternate scenes, with optional directory commentary, totaling about forty-one minutes.
The bonuses finish up with twenty scene selections; a theatrical trailer and seven TV spots; English as the only spoken language; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
"Secondhand Lions" may wander near and far, mixing down-home hokum with gushy sentiment, yet it generally succeeds in winning us over. I mean, the thing is so innocuous and so good-natured, how could it be otherwise? And watching Caine and Duvall interact with young Osment is a pleasure throughout the movie.