Who knew that Ben Stiller, the funnyman behind Zoolander and There’s Something About Mary, was the right man to bring James Thurber’s classic short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty to the big screen? Of course, much of the short story is absent from Stiller’s adaptation, but that was always a certainty (beautiful though it is, the original story is hardly enough to fill a short, let alone a major studio tentpole). What Stiller does manage to do, however, to my great surprise, is capture the adventurous heart of his title character.
Part of what makes Stiller’s characterization so enjoyable is how he nails the mannerisms of the Everyman. Working as a negative assets manager for the fictional Life magazine, Walter is quiet and awkward, more inclined to drift off into daydreams than actually look at what’s in front of him. Without alienating the character from the audience, Stiller portrays Walter as a meek man cowed by life’s simple unwillingness to work out. He misses his dad, can only love the girl of his dreams (Kristen Wiig) from a distance, struggles to make ends meet and, perhaps worst of all, is stuck in a basement looking at photos of adventures he once imagined himself taking. Everyone loves a good underdog, but with his soulful blue eyes and wandering line delivery, Stiller has crafted a truly great underdog.
When a prized negative goes missing, Walter finds himself launched into a genuine, globe-trotting adventure, determined to track down the elusive photographer (Sean Penn) behind it. Braving stormy seas, sharks, erupting volcanoes and icy mountains, Walter’s quest for the photograph (intended to grace the cover of Life’s last print issue) becomes a opportunity for him to at last prove his mettle.
The main draw of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, for many, will be its visuals. In one of many daydream sequences, Walter imagines himself as a super-spy, pummeling nasty transition manager Ted (Adam Scott) while surfing through concrete in a high-speed battle over a Stretch Armstrong toy. Such a CGI-heavy sequence should feel out of place in a film marketed as “inspiring” and “life-affirming,” but it’s a total blast to watch. Credit sharp writing, which pushes the envelope a little for a PG-rated film but also roots this dreamer’s tale in some much-needed realism.
Stiller, who also directed, clearly appreciates nature’s ability to awe, and some of the scenes from Walter’s travels are absolute knock-outs. The film was shot on location in Iceland, where director of photography Stuart Dryburgh moves the camera along mountain ranges and green valleys as if caressing them, gently, with the utmost respect and deference. In one scene, Walter long-boards along a twisty mountain road. It’s inspiring to see such an introvert finally stand up, arms outstretched to embrace life, but the most captivating aspect of the shot is how nonessential Walter actually is. The star, in fact, is the landscape around him, blooming like a flower in spring.
When Walter returns to New York and begins shuffling around his life again, much of the narrative pull evaporates. That’s a real shame, because with tighter writing, that hurdle could have been easily side-stepped. Instead, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty meanders to a frustrating degree. Though the acting support is stellar (Wiig, in particular, fills her barely written part with stirring emotion and heart), it just doesn’t hold up after so much visual spectacle.
As the film cycles back through exotic locations, taking Walter from dark and dangerous Icelandic waters to the chilly Himalayas, it regains a little energy, though the final act feels unfortunately hurried. Whereas Walter’s first venture into the wild is long enough to savor, his second rushes by far too quickly. Still, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of those rare blockbusters with real heart. Its conclusion is predictable, to be sure, but still strikes an appropriately sweet and uplifting note. If you can look past its flaws, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has an earnest, simple message – carpe diem – that it communicates with warmth, flair and impressive imagination.
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment marketed The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as the “must-own movie of the year,” and the company clearly spared no expense with delivering a strong Blu-Ray package for the film. The 1080p transfer has stupendous video quality, with no noticeable faults whatsoever. There’s excellent depth in the huge shots of wide-open valleys, but also immaculate detail in those same scenes. Skin tones are natural, while Stiller’s “Blue Steel” glance has never looked livelier. The video dazzles on all fronts, whether in sleepier scenes at the Life offices or adrenaline-pounding action sequences in shark-infested waters.
The audio, rendered with a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 Track, is just as important to The Secret Life of Walter Mitty as its visual component, and the track definitely does not disappoint. Immersive and wonderfully spacious, the audio track brings Walter’s daydreams to vivid life. Whether it’s communicating the sounds of cascading ice or a massive explosion, there’s a thrilling vivacity to the track that really enhances the experience of watching the film on Blu-Ray. Dialogue is crisp throughout, and the soundtrack is especially terrific, integrating gorgeous numbers by Of Monsters and Men, Jose Gonzalez, Rogue Valley and many other talented artists.
In terms of special features, this disc is loaded, with dozens of extras exclusive to Blu-Ray. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty includes:
- Deleted Scenes (7:30)
- Morning Routine
- Young Odessa Fantasy
- Jester Fantasy
- Manfree Fantasy
- Impound Lot
The “Morning Routine” scene is an extended look at Walter’s dull, drab life. Easy to see why it was cut. The “Young Odessa Fantasy” and “Jester Fantasy” scenes are versions of scenes from the film with small fantastical interludes from Walter spiced in. Neither is particularly interesting, and Stiller was right to cut the daydream additions (his sister Odessa, played by Kathryn Hahn, becomes a petulant child, and Ted dons a jester outfit), as they seem more like hallucinations of a disturbed man than daydreams of a restless one.
The “Manfree Fantasy” scene, however, is very funny, painting Wiig’s love interest as a spoiled aristocrat and Walter as her abused servant (fans of The Princess Bride will particularly appreciate the dialogue). And the “Impound Lot” scene deepens the relationship between Odessa and Walter, with Hahn displaying some surprising emotion. If the film had focused at all on Walter’s family, this would have likely made the cut.
- Extended Scenes (4:33)
- Extended Arctic Fantasy
- Christmas Walk
Stiller’s fantasy involving an arctic explorer version of himself is funny for a few minutes, though the extended version here wears on the nerves a little. Stiller’s accent is distracting, and the action-packed addition to the scene (in which he holds a rose out to his love as ice cracks beneath his feet) feels forced. “Christmas Walk” extends the film’s riff on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but the scene works better with the punchline in the final cut.
- Alternate Scenes (3:42)
- Fly to Greenland Alternate Music
- Severance Package
The flight to Greenland is set to “Step Out” by Jose Gonzalez, a rocking number and one of the best songs on the film’s soundtrack. The “Severance Package” scene includes more interactions between Walter and his co-workers, but nothing of consequence really emerges in their discussions, so it makes sense that Stiller opted for a simpler version of the same scene.
- Behind the Scenes
- The History of Walter Mitty (3:39)
- The Look of Life (5:01)
- That’s A Shark (5:57)
- The Music of Walter Mitty (4:01)
- Icelandic Adventure (3:26)
- Nordic Casting (3:51)
- Titles of Walter Mitty (2:49)
- Sights and Sounds of Production
- Skateboarding Through Iceland (2:23)
- Ted-Walter Fight (2:48)
- Ted-Walter Fight Pre-Viz Early Version (4:15)
Those interested in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty‘s journey from the original short story to this adaptation will love “The History of Walter Mitty,” which features interviews with multiple cast members and touches upon Thurber’s hopes for an adaptation of his story. Interesting sidenote: Thurber apparently hated the first version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, which starred Danny Kaye.
“The Look of Life” puts a magnifying glass on both Walter’s adventurous spirit and the underlying themes present in Life magazine, which Walter works for. It also features discussions with Stiller and others involved with filming the project – apparently, one conscious choice was “loosening up” the camera as Walter began to explore the world.
The featurette “That’s A Shark” centers on the challenges of filming the stunt sequences for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Stiller confides that the best way to approach such scenes is to do “as much as you can practically,” which meant that Stiller’s stunt double was actually dunked into the ocean and flying through the air. “If we let Ben do everything, he would do everything,” says the stuntman, Greg Fitzpatrick, with a laugh. It’s very impressive to see how game everyone involved was when it came to carrying out risky stunts.
Film score aficionados will appreciate “The Music of Walter Mitty,” which spends a lot of time with Theodore Shapiro, who aimed to create a truly “epic” score for the film. Shapiro also discusses the challenges of managing transitions from daydream sequences to Walter’s life.
“Icelandic Adventure” is, as the title states, about the experiences of the cast and crew while filming in Iceland. All of them appreciated the natural beauty of the country, which was probably a necessity for them to be able to truly capture the magnificence of the scenery on camera. The featurette shows how some of the stunt sequences were approached in Iceland.
The character actors who played denizens of Greenland are profiled in “Nordic Casting.” Casting director Rachel Tanner discusses the lengthy audition process she went through to find the right actors for the parts. We see the auditions for the actors who were eventually cast, which are energetic and very fun to watch.
The title designer, Kyle Cooper, had a great time integrating titles into The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and “Titles of Walter Mitty” offers a slight look at his approach to working on this particular project. There are many interesting early cuts of the title sequences shown, and it’s clear that a great deal of work went into striking the right tone with the title card alone.
The “Sights and Sounds” featurettes spend a little time with the crew, recording the behind-the-scenes work. These play like extra footage, and there’s no narration, which makes them feel very raw but still insightful. The skating sequences in Iceland and the elevator fight fantasy with Walter and Ted are the only two scenes to get this treatment.
The best extra, by far, is the “Ted-Walter Fight Pre-Viz Early Version.” Communicated through storyboard animations and computer graphics, it shows a much more elaborate (and even cooler) take on the superhuman fight sequence between Ted and Walter, which must have been shortened either because of budget concerns or issues of practicality. Some of the stuff is so fantastical that it would have been really difficult to shoot, though I wish that Stiller had pulled it off. Still, this is an amazing look into what could have been, and I’m grateful for it.
- Gallery: Reference Photography
- Music Video “Stay Alive” by Jose Gonzalez
- Theatrical Trailer
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a wonderfully imaginative adventure perfect for your entire family. The Blu-Ray package is superb, with top-notch video and audio, as well as a comprehensive set of extras, so this film comes highly recommended. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, you’ll have a great time.
The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty suffers from a sagging middle section, but there are moments of pure magic in this otherwise wonderfully imaginative, visually breathtaking ode to the carpe diem lifestyle.