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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Secondhand Lions (Blu-ray)
Secondhand Lions (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // PG // December 1, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $28.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 3, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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The Film:

This past generation hasn't really seen its great children's film, especially since the likes of Harry Potter and other fantasy series have somewhat cornered the market in youthful pop culture. They're great films infused with plenty of heart and soul, yet we're missing the true down-home, bleeding heart family picture that outlines this generation -- like Stand By Me from the '80 and The Sandlot from the '90s. I suppose we'll have to accept a mishmash of several sources to satisfy that desire for prudent family warmth; along with Bridge to Terabithia and a smattering of Pixar/Dreamworks CG-animated pictures vying to get the job done, Tim McCanlies' Secondhand Lions adamantly tries to fill that void with good-natured humor, earnest characters, and coming-of-age schmaltziness.

Sixth Sense wunderkind Haley Joel Osment cranks out a mediocre pre-teen performances as Walter, a withdrawn and distrusting boy who's dropped off by his mother (Kyra Sedgwick) at his two uncles' home out in the middle of the country during the '60s. With very few words of encouragement and a strong urging for him to find their fabled "stash" of money, she bolts off to take classes at a court reporting school. Walter's uncles, Garth (Michael Caine) and Hub (Robert Duvall), aren't your typical older guys though; having both traveled around the world and fought in various battles, both in the military and for their own personal gain, they've developed a bit of an uninhibited, dangerous streak that calls for them to torment traveling salesman with shotguns and beat on punk teenage boys. It turns out Walter needs a dash of their gruffness to give him strength, while they need a bit of his honest influence to keep them in check.

Robert Duvall and Michael Caine are the standout stars of Secondhand Lions, emphasizing Garth and Hub's eccentricities with just the right amount of gusto to overshadow the humdrum Walter. Their quirkiness is charming from the get-go as they test the waters with "raising" Walter, but it's also scattered with touching moments. Caine goes in a different direction than we're used to seeing from him, grappling the more down-to-earth member of the uncle pairing with an air of charming gruffness. Duvall takes that demeanor and multiplies it twice-fold, becoming a centerpiece for the central point behind Secondhand Lions. It's a story about growing into manhood and believing in your convictions, and his off-kilter, brash masculinity as Hub hammers home that growth with a flair for romanticism.

In the process of shaping Walter over a gleeful summer of shotguns, garden planting, and eventually nursing a full-grown lion to health (first purchased as a sport target for Garth and Hub), Walter hears stories about his uncles' escapades in Africa -- a whirlwind of blades, gold coins, and adventure following their stint in the war. After seeing the likes of The Fall and its sublime rhetoric in telling a fantastical story to a child, it's hard to get into the lackluster rhythm of Secondhand Lions' side stories. They do, however, carry a delightful sense of adventure and a meaningful punch when paired with Hub's speeches about being "a true man", even if they take us away from the more exciting and substantial chunk of material in the film.

Secondhand Lions introduces us to a fine coming-of-age story and whips up a humorous, gleeful attitude about Walter's growth with his uncles, but it stumbles in the third act by becoming unrelentingly sweet and mushy. The first two-thirds of the film aren't without their issues -- obnoxious in-laws that offer little to the story other than annoying diversion, along with others -- but the complete disregard for a sense of realism at the conclusion cripples an otherwise earnest period family film. It goes in a few directions involving Walter's uncle's wealth and his mother's dishonesty that stride far beyond absurdity, simply for the sake of pulling at unnecessary heartstrings. Still, even with a weepy, saccharine conclusion drenched in disbelief, Tim McCanlies offers a dashing and warm adventure in the countryside that justifies its missteps in overreaching sentiment.

The Blu-ray:

Video and Audio:

Warner / New Line have offered Secondhand Lions in a 1.85:1 VC-1 encode that's satisfactory, but not without some issues. Tim McCanlies shot the picture with a hazy, sun-baked temperature to give it a memory-style attitude, which translates well through the color layers in this Blu-ray image. Through the slightly off-focus disposition of the film's photography, some details peek through -- like a myriad of corn stalks and wood grains within Garth and Hub's house. However, this image also struggles with having some very smooth textures (look at the barn during the gardening sequences, as well as many of the close-up facial textures), as well as a much heavier level of grain than expected from a 35mm film from 2004. The image looks overly artificial at many points, especially at times when the eye trails away from the focal characters and into the at-times striking countryside. It doesn't carry the same intensely processed look of some of New Line's other efforts, but it certainly leaves a bit to be desired.

Fairing a bit better, the Dolby TrueHD track emphasizes musical accompaniment and sound effects over verbal clarity. Every ounce of Patrick Doyle's score pours through with sublime crispness, grandly reaching to the rear channels. Several gunshots and sword-clanging effects sounded exceptional, punching the upper shelf of the sound design with respectable crispness. However, the dialogue has some audibility issues, coming across with a suppressed quality underneath the music that's often difficult to hear. You get the gist of the dialogue at most points and still have a thoroughly enjoyable time with the TrueHD track, so these aren't unforgivable issues -- it's just lacking in balance at more points than expected. A Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track has also been made available, along with optional English SDH subtitles.

Special Features:

Commentary with Director Tim McCanlies:
This is a great commentary that mixes in-depth insight into the production of the film with elaboration of characters. Director McCanlies emphasizes every element of the picture, from scoring and construction of sets to the gentleness several sequences. He discusses logistics involving shoots within tight spaces like a pick-up truck, as well as shooting in Austin, TX and building an "end of the second act montage".

One Screenplay's Wild Ride to Hollywood (26:05, VC-1):
This grand, sweeping style of documentary follows the film from its creation in Tim McCanlies' hands to getting it produced. It discusses making the two older leads "more heroic", McCanlies defending his script to Warner Bros., and the passing on the script from many other studios. It involves a lot of interview time with all the producers, as well as some discussion about New Line's cash surplus with the Lord of the Rings movies -- and how they got through to them.

On the Set with Secondhand Lions (26:07, VC-1):
Branching from the first piece, this featurette hops on-set with the cast of Secondhand Lions in Austin, Tx. Director McCanlies talks about the culture and look of his home town, diving into giving the "alfie" Caine a Texas accent by having the words "lean" on each other. Speaking on voices, Haley Joel Osment discusses his high-pitched breaking of voice due to his voice dropping. Discussion then revolves around casting Kyra Sedgwick as Mae and her blend of comedy and drama. We also learn more about the crazy crew of animals incorporated in the picture, from dogs and fish to the lion. It rounds out with some behind-the-scenes shots and discussion about the flashback sequences and the brawl in the bar.

Haley Joel Osment: An Actor Coming of Age (12:42, VC-1):
The young actor falls into focus in this featurette, talking about his first experiences in acting. One of the first things he mentions is his one-line delivery in a Pizza Hut commercial, then over into his relationship with his father. It also talks about Osment having a "normal life" around the time of the featurette's filming, and then over into discussion about Secondhand Lions as his coming-of-age picture -- literally.

Also available are two stunning Visual Effects Comparisons (1:56, VC-1) for the "From Austin to Marseille" and "Digital Soldiers" sequences, a slew of Deleted Scenes (41:22, VC-1) with optional commentary, as well as a Trailer and seven TV Spots.

Final Thoughts:

Tim McCanlies' Secondhand Lions haughtily attempts to be this decade's coming-of-age yarn, landing a level of charming humor and tenderness about its adventuresome attitude that's a lot of fun to watch. The duo of Michael Caine and Robert Duvall claim a lot of its success, boosting them both into eccentric Texan veterans struggling to come to grips with their own age. Though it crumbles in its third act due to formulaic sap-heavy theatrics and a few wholly unbelievably patches, the picture's development in the front end and vibrant attitude both paint it into a pleasant family picture -- one that's a little harder-edged for some younger audiences, but still a heartwarming one when look at from the outside in. New Line's Blu-ray isn't a stunner in HD, but at least it presents the material in a decent fashion and with plenty of special features to back it up. Most will likely find the standard-definition DVD satisfactory enough, yet the boost in audio clarity and the marginal improvement in visual quality might be worth the investment for some. Rent It.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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