WalterMittycoverGrade: B
Entire family: Yes, but . . . .
2013, 114 min., Color
20th Century Fox
Rated PG for some crude comments, language, and action violence
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 7.1
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, UV Copy
Bonus features: B

Literary purists won’t like it that director-star Ben Stiller strayed so far from the plot of James Thurber’s original short story, or the 1947 film adaptation starring Danny Kaye. Meanwhile, fans of action comedies may think Thurber’s fantasy elements the weakest part of this film. But somehow, out of a no-win situation, Stiller manages to make a likable movie that entertains while also providing a little get-out-of-the-basement inspiration.

Thurber’s Walter Mitty was a meek and mild-mannered proofreader who lived a life so dull that he was prone to daydream elaborate scenarios in which he would always emerge the hero—the guy who gets the girl. As a child, I remember liking the film in spite of those fantasy sequences, and apparently some things never change. Even though Stiller severely dialed back on the number and length of the daydreaming episodes, inventively passing them off as Mitty’s propensity for “spacing out,” my teen and pre-teen still hated those parts, as I once did. What’s more, our world has become so much more aggressive that they also didn’t care much for the Mitty character—even though he isn’t nearly as bumbling or hapless as Kaye once played him.

Stiller’s Mitty is more of a work-a-day schlepper who toils in the negative archives of Life magazine and really has no life outside of that. In fact, a dating site he joined recently keeps checking up on him to see if he’s actually done something to add to his blank and not terribly appealing or effective profile.

Adam Scott is entertaining as the “terminator” who bluntly tells Life staffers that this next issue will be the magazine’s last, and that most of them will be let go as they downsize to an online-only format. It’s a nice situational updating that lends new credence to Thurber’s story, actually.  

And when you learn that Walter has been working in the dungeon-like archives for 16 years with only a single employee down there for company (Adrian Martinez as Hernando), it’s easy to believe that these two basement dwellers may have lost whatever social skills they once possessed. For Mitty, that includes being able to relate to women. He really likes one of the employees from the photo department, but is awkward around Cheryl (Kristen Wiig)—so much so that he joins a dating site just because he heard SHE did, and he wants to try to connect with her online rather than face-to-face.

WalterMittyscreenThat’s a sad-but-true commentary on where the Internet and gaming and hand-held devices are taking us, and subtle social criticism is one of the additional elements of freshness that Stiller brought to this old story. Location filming is also a welcome addition. Though most of the shooting was done in Iceland, the terrain varies so much that you believe that when Mitty can’t find a negative among others that Life’s star photographer mailed him and he has to go to Greenland, where a dupe was arbitrarily sent for safety’s sake, what we’re really seeing is Greenland . . . then Iceland . . . then Afghanistan. And Sean Penn is remarkably understated and matter-of-fact as the adventurous photographer Sean O’Connell—who comes across like The Most Interesting Man in the World on beer commercials.

So the 2013 incarnation of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is an improvement on the original. But there are still those fantasy segments to contend with, and compared to similar comedies involving social misfits, lovable losers, or below-average schmucks with above-average dreams who are thrown into a situation in which they finally rise to a challenge—films like “Get Smart,” “The Other Guys,” or “Date Night”—this one doesn’t have the same consistent crackle of energy . . . and certainly not as much action.

That said, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” still works, and, like its predecessor, in spite of those fantasy sequences and not because of them—even if they’ve been updated with some pretty good CGI special effects. Will your family like it? That depends on how your children respond to visual representations of Mitty’s interior daydreams.