THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013) – Blu-ray review

If ever there was a film in need of updating, it’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” a 1947 fantasy-comedy designed to showcase the talents that star Danny Kaye had for song, dance, comedy, and multi-character mugging. Based on James Thurber’s 1939 short story, the film adaptation featured a milquetoast proofreader who lived a dull existence and, as a result, was prone to daydream alternate, heroic lives for himself.

But who even uses the word “milquetoast” any more? And what daydreamer today would sit there and imagine long heroic situations for himself when he could just get online and role-play against and defeat people he doesn’t even know?

Those long fantasy segments of Kaye’s were a nightmare for anyone who couldn’t stand the dream sequences that were popular for a while on both the big and the small screen—so much so that when his Walter Mitty finally became accidentally involved in a cloak-and-dagger conspiracy near the end of the second act, it was a huge relief.

As a child, I remember liking the film in spite of those fantasy sequences, and apparently some things never change. Even though Ben Stiller severely dialed back on the number and length of the daydreaming sequences, 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 hated the Mitty character—even though Mitty isn’t nearly as bumbling or hapless as Kaye once played him.

With Stiller directing and also acting in the title role, 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 a-hole who bluntly tells the Life staffers that this next issue will be the magazine’s last, and that they will have to let most of them go as they downsize to an online-only format. So it’s a nice situational updating that lends new credence to Thurber’s story. 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 likes one of the employees who works in the photo department, but is obviously 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.

That’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 things that adds new freshness to an old story.  Location filming is also a welcome addition. Though most of the shooting was done in Iceland, the terrain varies so much 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, and it’s a treat to see Shirley Maclaine as Walter’s mother. 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.

“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” has a runtime of 114 minutes and is rated PG for “some crude comments, language, and action violence.”

“Stunning” is a word that’s overused in describing HD presentations, but darn it, the really is stunning. You can appreciate that not only in the close-ups and medium shots that normally showcase detail, but also in extreme long shots that make you daydream what it would be like to visit Greenland, or Iceland, or the high mountains of Afghanistan. The visual tone is set early with an inventive title sequence in which the credits are listed so subtly and so logically in the background (like graffiti on a building, or a train station sign) that you realize that vivid locations will be an inseparable part of the film’s narrative. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.

And if the audio is even more impressive, what adjective works for that? Uber-stunning? The featured audio is a rock-the-house English DTS-HD MA 7.1 that really offers a fully immersive experience, and with vibrant bass. The rear speakers are exceptionally involved throughout the film, even when the ambient noise is subdued. Included are audio options in English Descriptive, Spanish, and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.

This combo pack comes with a DVD and DigitalHD UV copy of the film, along with a free photo Book from Shutterfly. On the discs, look for 15 minutes of deleted/extended/alternate scenes, along with 10 behind-the-scenes featurettes, none of which runs more than six minutes long. Given the load time, I’d much prefer that these were rolled into one 39-minute single feature, but that’s life. They’re broken down according to “The History of Walter Mitty,” “The Look of Life,” “That’s a Shark!” “The Music of Walter Mitty,” “Icelandic Adventure,” “Nordic Casting,” “Titles of Walter Mitty” (I’m glad they gave this guy credit), “Skateboarding through Iceland,” “Ted-Walter Fight,” and “Ted-Walter Pre-Viz, Early Version.”

Rounding out the bonus features are a photo gallery, a “Stay Alive” music video from Jose Gonzolas, and the original theatrical trailer.

Bottom line:
Literary purists won’t like it that Stiller strayed so far from Thurber’s original plot, and fans of action comedies may think that the Thurber’s original elements are the weakest parts of this film. But somehow, out of a no-win situation, Stiller manages to make a likable movie that entertains and also provides a little get-out-of-the-basement inspiration.