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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty never cracked the Top 5 weekly box office performers when it was in theaters. Yet most people who saw the film liked it, giving it a B+ CinemaScore (a poll of exiting theatergoers). Now that the film is available at home, more families should find this gem.
Rated PG, the film is not faithful to James Thurber’s 1939 New Yorker short story. That was a sad tale about a sad man, lost in heroic daydreams yet ineffectual in real life. Ben Stiller’s film (he both directs and stars) is far more hopeful.
Stiller surprises viewers—and subverts Hollywood’s clichéd emphasis on individuality-at-all-costs—in three other ways. First, we get some of Walter’s backstory, which helps us understand why he’s stuck in his shell. Surprisingly, it’s not because some authority figure (a parent, a priest, a teacher) was “mean” to him—but because he lost his father (whom he loved!) at a young age, and took on the burden of caring for his family.
Second, Walter’s quest may be launched by his love for a woman (Kristen Wiig), but his goal is actually related to his work. Walter is good at his job as a “negative asset manager” for Life magazine and is committed to finding a lost negative from Life’s best photographer (Sean Penn in his most appealing character since—ever?). Walter has a nasty new boss but cares enough about his work to keep his commitment to doing it well.
I won’t say much about the last reason—it would spoil the ending—but it’s both fascinating and refreshing that on some level the film celebrates the man Walter was before his transformation.
The film is not perfect—Walter’s transformation happens too fast and some character development is weak; also, there is some mild bad language and innuendo. But Walter Mitty has humor, adventure, fantasy, stunning images, great music, and more than a few genuinely touching moments. My family covers the range from ages 7-37. I suspect we will not be alone in finding delight in this small, underappreciated film.