Mane attraction: <I>Secondhand Lions</I> warms the heart

Secondhand plots are Hollywood's specialty. Although we critics get tired of them sometimes and long for independent films with fresh ideas, some recyclers know what they're doing and do it well.

Take Secondhand Lions, for instance. We've seen children come of age in the care of eccentric relatives before (Auntie Mame, Unstrung Heroes, etc.), and we've seen greedy relatives hovering over a still-breathing fortune (the family here is straight out of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). We've heard tall tales (and we'll soon hear more in Big Fish), and we've seen women make fools of themselves over worthless men (Juliette Lewis in Cold Creek Manor is virtually interchangeable with Kyra Sedgwick in Secondhand Lions, and they're opening on the same day!).

Maybe the main reason for seeing Secondhand Lions is that you missed writer-director Tim McCanlies' first directorial effort, Dancer, Texas Pop. 81, a little gem that somehow led to his making a bigger picture with a bigger cast five years later.

And casts don't come any bigger– in terms of talent– than Robert Duvall, Michael Caine, and Haley Joel Osment. It's like the male equivalent of the cast of The Hours. Caine's never at his best when trying to drawl (see Hurry Sundown– better yet, don't see it), but he's OK and the other two are great.

It's the summer of 1962 and the McCann brothers, Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine), have recently resurfaced after being gone for 40 years. (They left in 1914, so someone's math is a little off.) Their niece Mae (Sedgwick) arrives unannounced ("Old people just love surprises") to drop off her son Walter (Osment) to stay with them while she goes to court reporter school in Fort Worth. On the way she tells Walter to snoop around and learn where the men keep a fortune they're reputed to have.

The old boys aren't thrilled with the surprise ("The last thing we need is some li'l sissy-boy hangin' around all summer"), but Mae gives them no choice, and this is the kind of movie where you know they'll warm to the kid and he to them.

So here's Walter on a farm where he's not wanted, with two great uncles, five dogs and a pig. (The pig disappears later with no explanation; it's just not there for the farewell scene.) He soon learns his mother's not in school, and when she writes the letter is postmarked Las Vegas.

The uncles' favorite pastime is sitting on the porch and shooting at a steady stream of traveling salesmen who try to part them from their money. After one word from Walter, they start spending money like it's going out of style. Garth insists on starting a garden because it's what old people do.

Garth is the friendlier of the two and starts telling Walter some family history. The continuing saga becomes a substitute for the television they don't have. His story is shown in silent footage that could be from an adventure movie of the 1940s. He and Hub went to Europe in 1914 and toured one step ahead of the conquering Germans until they were drugged in Marseilles and drafted into the French Foreign Legion.

Hub met the love of his life, Princess Jasmine, in North Africa, and had to fight an evil sheik for her. Garth's narrative also explains how the McCanns got rich, but there are conflicting stories in the community that make them sound less heroic.

The title obviously refers to the uncles, but to make it metaphorical, they buy an old lion from a circus with the intention of shooting it ("At our age this is as sporting as we get"), but let Walter keep it as a pet instead.

When it comes down to where the boy belongs in the end– and after all, he still has to hear Hub's "What every boy needs to know about being a man" speech– Garth says (and this could be another metaphor), "No judge is gonna take a child away from his mother and give him to two old bachelor uncles."

McCanlies gets extra points for telling his story without Walter doing any narration ("...but most of all, I remember uncles"), but in the end he reveals a device he might have used. The clever, animated credits, which should have gone at the beginning, reveal Walter grew up to be a cartoonist. Maybe it would have been too much like American Splendor to let his cartoon panels frame the story, but why should that be the only movie Secondhand Lions doesn't steal from?

Just so you know to expect heavy, family-friendly sentimentality mixed with considerable humor, Secondhand Lions shouldn't disappoint you.