Boy meets grumpy old men

Family films are back in style, and while not all of them are squeaky-clean enough to earn a G rating, it's refreshing to see a growing number of movies aimed at kids as well as grown-ups. "Secondhand Lions" is among the best of the current crop, pairing an inventive plot with marvelous acting by Robert Duvall and Michael Caine, two big-screen lions who are anything but secondhand.

They play Hub and Garth, two grumpy old men who live in a middle-of-nowhere farmhouse that's as ramshackle as they've allowed themselves to become.

Their idea of a nice time is a long spell of sitting on the front porch. Their idea of great fun is firing rifles at the traveling salesmen who dare to approach that porch. And their idea of contentment is being left alone by everyone in the world - especially family members who cozy up to them in hopes of inheriting the big pile of loot they're said to have stashed away somewhere on the premises.

Given their dim view of the human race, they're not exactly enthusiastic, when a wayward relative decides to place her 14-year-old son (Haley Joel Osment) into their not-so-loving care. They decide to put up with young Walter instead of throwing him out, and before long, the three of them are getting along well - especially when Garth starts enchanting the lad with tales of the daunting escapades he and Hub had in their pre-front-porch days as voyagers, warriors, and lovers.

There's every chance these exploits took place less in reality than in the lively imaginations of these good old boys, but Walter still finds them thrilling to hear. Exciting in different ways are the real-life adventures that confront him in his new home, from arguments with his cranky uncles to friendship with an aging lion - a genuine one, although as secondhand as his owners - that lives in their cornfield. To understand why, you have to see the movie.

"Secondhand Lions" was written and directed by Tim McCanlies, whose credits include the screenplay for "The Iron Giant" in 1999, the most intelligent animated feature in recent memory. He brings a similar blend of wit and insight to his new movie, which also benefits from its excellent cast.

There's no need to belabor the talents of Duvall and Caine, amazingly gifted actors who are aging gracefully. Nor is Haley's excellent acting a surprise, given the many credits he's already racked up, including ambitious projects like "The Sixth Sense" and "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence."

Also on hand are Kyra Sedgwick, Nicky Katt, and a very likable lion.

The heartiest kudos goes to Mr. McCanlies, though, for crafting a movie that's smart and entertaining almost every step of the way.

Rated PG; contains vulgarity and action-movie violence.

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