Secondhand Lions is one of those films that polarizes tastes across the Atlantic, British reviewers firmly viewing it as cynically mawkish while American reviewers enjoying the cranky characters and ahh shucks sentiment. For my money, I just found it a trifle surprising. Ostensibly, the film's story is Haley Joel Osment's (my, hasn't he grown?!) character being dumped with cantankerous uncles Robert Duvall and Michael Caine ('Gawd bless you sir!') and the initial awkwardness is replaced with the expected earned respect. Throughout, Caine's character relays the stories of his brother's implausible sounding adventures in the Foreign Legion. The curious mixture of whimsical coming of age and daring do gives Patrick Doyle surprisingly wide scope for musical adventures, as well as the expected sentiment around the core story.
The Main Titles set the tone for the more adventurous side to the score, a rollocking fanfare theme, Doyle relishing the prospect to pick up the Korngold baton and doing a little swashbuckling of his own. The flashback episodes - Hub Meets Jasmine and The Assassins, in particular - are all high energy and instantly engaging. The African connection is highlighted with some percussive elements, notably in Secondhand Arrival which also has vocals by Ola Onabule. This element is the least frequently used, but when it is reprised for the sneaking about of Cornfield Jungle, it's a delight. The bonding scenes are, as expected, more intimate and the main theme is lovely without being too cloying. Indeed, a few of the negative comments about the score's bombast in reviews of the film seem wholly inappropriate, especially when applied to these portions. The highlight is undoubtedly the gorgeous She Was a Real Lion with fragile, but winning vocals by Patrick Doyle Junior. They wouldn't have sounded out of place in one of the Lord of the Rings films. Doyle doing Shore's job, now there's a thought!
The album rounds out with a short piano suite and is a suitably low key finale As Doyle notes in an interview, Secondhand Lions is like several scores rolled into one and the frustration lies in the brevity of many of the sections. The swashbuckling portions seem the most disappointingly brief, just as they build up a head of steam, there's a return to the more introspective music for the uncle/nephew bonding. Having said that, if you can accept the shifts in tone and the modest length of many cues, then Secondhand Lions is a wholly engaging effort. The melodic content isn't as immediately strong as Doyle's finest scores, but as happens to many composers when they reach a certain level of maturity, the instant impact is replaced with music that begs for repeat listens to discover all its themes and the connections between them. The performance by the Slovak Radio Symphony is excellent, as is the fine engineered sound. Doyle's most engaging score for some while and one that no fan of the composer should miss.