Secondhand Lions

Had I not known that “The Iron Giant” and New Line’s forthcoming “Secondhand Lions” shared the same screenwriter in Tim McCanlies, I most likely would have written off Lions as the work of a first-time screenwriter still in the process of honing his craft.

But, as much as it pains me to say after enjoying his past works, his next endeavor is more of a step back than anything resembling forward motion. “Secondhand Lions” feels like familiar ground already written, and, this time, McCanlies has been given the added pressure to also direct this live-action feature. For someone who showed a true gift in “The Iron Giant,” this script is disappointing.

Still, McCanlies is still able to craft an interesting story here. “Lions” looks at the relationship that blossoms between a young boy named Walter and his two great-uncles, Bud and Garth McCaan, in the early 1960’s. It might be derivative of other (and better) films, but there are several points in the script that crackle— oddly enough, the best involving a running gag about traveling salesmen.

After a quick introduction to an older Bud and Garth in the present day as they sail their biplane into the sunset, viewers are introduced to Walter (to be played by Haley Joel Osment) being driven to his great-uncle’s home. McCanlies describes his characters well; here, Walter is described as “pale, quiet, one of life’s wallflowers,” while his mother, Mae (in a part uncast as of this writing), is described as “deeper into her desperate thirties than she ever admits.”

Mae is indeed desperate— each season, she drops off her son with a different charge so she can pursue the pleasures in life that one might not be able to enjoy as much with a child in tow. This particular year she tells Walter she is going to be enrolling in the Fort Worth College of Court Reporting, where she will have her pick of “good jobs and…good husband material,” but she instead makes her way to Las Vegas for her predatory hunting. For Walter’s destination, she has decided to stick him with her mother’s two brothers, much to their displeasure. What’s more, the brothers are said to be filthy rich (although how they achieved all this money is much speculated about by other family members), and Mae wants for Walter to make a good impression on them.

It is initially a difficult dynamic on the brothers McCaan’s Texas farm: soft-spoken, 10-year-old Walter living with two irascible characters that are leveling shotguns at catfish swimming in their lake when the boy first meets them. Garth (Michael Caine) is the more paternal of the two, while Hub (Robert Duvall) is more of a physical force—but they both fear getting older. Walter soon helps to change their viewpoint on a number of items, including salesmen.

Before Walter’s arrival, Garth and Hub used to gleefully summon salesmen to their home via ticking off the then-common “Please have a salesman call” option found in promotional mailings. When the doomed arrived, the brothers level shotguns at them until the salesmen leave (they usually get the idea pretty quickly, to their credit). A quick aside here: This is one of the better parts of the script, and one that audiences will readily identify with in today’s age of relentless telemarketers; hopefully McCanlies can translate the parts of the “Smiling Salesman,” “Grinning Salesman,” “Gleeful Salesman,” “Smart Salesman” and the rest of their ilk onto the screen as well as they come out on the page here.

Walter soon has them buying, in short order, a skeet machine, corn seeds for their fields and, ultimately, a lion. The brothers make these purchases in great part to horrify other relatives who make frequent house calls— when Walter asks them “But what good is having all that money if you never spend anyr,” the script depicts a relative ready to strangle him as the rest of the family gags in disbelief.

These purchases, in a variety of ways, help bring the trio together as a unit. It also opens the door for Walter to find out more about the brother’s mysterious past (are they bank robbers or were they in Africar) and the picture of a beautiful woman found buried in sand in the farm’s tower, all of which comes to a head in the third act. This is all triggered when Mae comes back with a new fiance in tow and looking for Walter to point them in the direction of the hidden fortune, promising the boy a family and house will result if they tell him where the money is. The ending is a good one, if McCanlies can pull it off— the words which begin this script review above are misleading to the final scenes in the script. This is the most I can say without spoiling the surprise there—but don’t expect anything on the level of Osment’s The Sixth Sense.

Judging by the script’s tone, the film will vary wildly between the sweet, the saccharine and the zany. At some points the three do not inter-mesh well on the page and from the scene changes.

Also, the addition of CGI to a dozen-plus fantasy sequences depicting Walter’s imagination has me worried. As a device in television, we’ve seen this trick has failed a great recently (the recently deceased ‘Ally McBeal,’ for starters), and I’m not so sure McCanlies has the directing chops to make it work within the constraints of the script. Casting calls for the fantasy sequences (which show younger versions of the brothers) have just gone out, so a great deal depends on who is cast here, most likely unknowns.

More than anything, I like the title, which can be defined a number of ways— there is only a single lion in the script (the title is plural, natch), and Jasmine doesn’t have much of an impact as it is, although a lion stalking a cornfield should make for an intriguing visual. Is Walter a secondhand lion as well, perhapsr

I’m less skeptical about the leads that have been cast, although Osment may look a little older than the age indicated of the character in the script. The trio should be able to make this film work, despite the ordinariness of the script and a somewhat-green director (he also directed 1998’s Dancer, Texas Pop. 81).

This film bears watching as it begins its trek to theaters, most likely in late 2003 or early 2004. As of this writing, filming is set to begin in mid-September, while the film looks to target a PG rating. Keep an eye out for this film, I have a feeling the end product will be better than the base material here.

Rating: B-