"The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" shouldn't be any good at all.
It's a remake of a 1947 film that wasn't screaming to be remade, even if the idea of doing just that has been kicking around Hollywood since the mid-'90s. With a reported budget of almost $100 million, it seemed like the classic case of money masking a lack of imagination.
For much of its first half, during which visuals replace vision, "Walter Mitty" stumbles down a rabbit hole of technological triumph. But then something unexpected happens: it turns into a sweetly engaging blockbuster. That may be its biggest special effect of all.
Based on a short story by James Thurber, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" revolves around an underachieving man who enlivens his dull life with an overactive imagination. Danny Kaye starred in the '40s version and Ben Stiller stars in and directs this revamped edition and, from a director's point of view, the idea of bringing Mitty's wildest dreams to life with the aid of computer graphics must have had magnetic appeal.
Mitty is decidedly old-school, working as a photo negative archivist at a dying Life magazine. He spends his days with few friends and pining silently for a co-worker, single-mom Cheryl (Kristen Wiig). In between, he experiences vivid daydreams where he accomplishes heroic feats.
He gets to make those dreams reality after Life is taken over by a group of corporate drones -- fronted by the heartless Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott). They plan to turn the legendary publication into a website, but they want the magazine to go out with a bang, publishing its final issue with a memorable cover.
The magazine's most celebrated and elusive photographer, Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), has said he has sent in a negative of a photo that he says would be the perfect journalistic goodbye. But no one can find the negative. So Mitty takes it upon himself to track down O'Connell, one of his few friends at the magazine, and find that photo.
This is when "Walter Mitty," literally, starts to soar as Mitty the man wings his way to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan, the last places where O'Connell was thought to have been. It's here that "Mitty" relies less on annoying CGI -- a daydream fight between Mitty and Hendricks looks like something from "Thor" or one of those endless battles at the climax of "Man of Steel" -- and more on the simple but breathtaking beauty of natural landscapes. A scene where Mitty skateboards down an Icelandic road may do as much for Icelandic tourism as "Lord of the Rings" did for New Zealand's.
This is also where the movie, scripted by Stephen Conrad ("The Pursuit of Happyness"), begins to feel less like a gimmick and more like a movie with heart and soul. Mitty is forced to grow up, relying less on his unreal world and more on the real one in front of him. Stiller and Wiig display a winning vulnerability as they dance around having a relationship, and Penn's role is gruffly amusing.
By the end, viewers may not have completely forgotten about "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty's" troubled start, but they will be more inclined to forgive it.
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THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY
Director: Ben Stiller
Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn
Rated: PG (some crude comments, action violence, mild language)