Set in 1960s Texas, this innocuous and occasionally heart-warming tale uses an obviously metaphorical parallel to examine the fates of wild things imprisoned by the limits of old age and social mores, and only the heroic efforts of stars Robert Duvall and Michael Caine keep it from drowning in a swamp of saccharine. Flighty gold-digger Mae (Kyra Sedgwick) needs the summer off from single-motherhood, so she unceremoniously dumps her shy 14-year-old, Walter (Haley Joel Osment), at the secluded Texas ranch belonging to her long-lost uncles, who are rumored to have millions hidden somewhere on the property. Hub (Duvall) and Garth (Caine) don't need a "sissy" boy messing with their daily schedule of iced-tea drinking and taking potshots at travelling salesmen. But after about 30 seconds of grumpiness, they soften, mostly because it really annoys the rest of their greedy family when they're nice to Walter. Curiosity replaces Walter's feelings of abandonment when he discovers an old photograph of a beautiful woman and connects it to Hub's midnight sleepwalking/sword-fighting habit. Not to mention that everyone in town whispers something to him about bank robbery, Mafia connections or Nazi loot. Garth obliges the boy with a fantastical yarn about the brothers' exploits with the French Foreign Legion in North Africa, and Hub's tragic romance with an Arabian princess named Jasmine. The colorful flashbacks that illustrate his tale have the simplistic air of a silent adventure movie, and understandably capture the boy's imagination. Back on the ranch, Walter convinces his uncles to start spending some of their fortune on the salesmen's offerings, which include everything from vegetable seeds to the titular lion, which Hub and Garth intend to hunt before they realize the ancient zoo reject makes a fine pet (blazing metaphor alert!). But while Garth has taken to slow, rural retirement, Hub can't handle being relegated to the status of useless old man and becomes self-destructive what does he have left to live for when he'd rather be reunited with his only love in the hereafter? It's not hard to guess that the kid has something to do with helping Hub re-evaluate his life; the scenes in which he does so are cringe-worthy. Granted, it's unfair to compare an actor's precocious child persona with his awkward 14-year-old self, but Osment relies so often on his furrowed brow to convey emotion that you have to keep reminding yourself that the technique actually worked in THE SIXTH SENSE. That all three of these actors excel in serious movies only serves to highlight the way this trifle deftly ignores the dark implications of suicidal impulses, violence and abusive relationships in favor of a sweet, tidy and ultimately forgettable story.
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