REVIEW: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Growing up in New York meant the secondary channels – WNEW, WOR, WPIX – often ran the same features often enough you came to expect them and knew the films from their frequent advertisements. It’s where I first met Walter Mitty, as portrayed by Danny Kaye in the 1947 adaptation of the James Thurber short story which first appeared in the New Yorker on March 18, 1939. The influential tale is among the most anthologized short stories of the last century and is said to have inspired a young artist named Harvey Kurtzman. As a youngster, I loved the idea of an adult who had these amazing fantasies, meaning when I grew up I could continue to enjoy the fantasies I was imagining rather than doing schoolwork. The movie was fairly faithful to the story while allowing Kaye’s everyman to also sing and pater his way through some sequences, making the character permanently linked to the performer.
Satire and humor authors are often overlooked when examining the great writers of an era and Thurber, beloved as he was, lacked the prestige of Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other contemporaries. As a result, his works have been largely forgotten and are rarely taught outside of universities. It’s therefore interesting to note that it took nearly 20 years for a remake of this film and story to reach theaters. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the current edition, had a lengthy gestation period over rights agreements and a variety of high profile directors (Steven Spielberg, Gore Verbinski) coming and going. Originally conceived as a vehicle for Jim Carrey, it could have been an interesting updating. When Spielberg got to it, he instructed his writers to go back to the source material, a piece of advice I wish had been maintained by screenwriter Steve Conrad.
The remake, which opened to middling notices and so-so box office at Christmastime, is now out on Blu-ray and it’s got such incredible potential that it is ultimately a disappointment. Mitty is now an employee at Life, the venerable picture magazine that was about to go from print to digital and the vital negative needed for the ultimate cover image has gone missing. As a result, Mitty is propelled to search it out, using other negatives from photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) as a guide. Along the way, this average guy facing redundancy has a series of spectacular adventures that fuel his overactive imagination.
Thurber’s Mitty imagined the love of his life, who in the Kaye version (played by Virgina Mayo), intruded on his fantasies and took him on his first “real” adventure, winding up with her. Here, it is Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig), a fellow staffer facing unemployment who has been the object of his desire. From the get-go you know they will wind up together undercutting some of the emotional journey.
Where Kaye’s Mitty wanted to be a fighter pilot, lawyer, and surgeon, here Ben Stiller’s Mitty is now an explorer, heading for Greenland and tasting rea life rather than looking at the images in Life (get it?). He’s a likeable enough character and you do find yourself rooting for him, but this does not feel like Thurber and the social satire is entirely absent, robbing the film of its chance to be special instead of merely commercial.
The video transfer to Blu-ray is just fine as is the sound. There are a handful of superfluous Deleted, Alternate and Extended Scenes (15:45); The History of Walter Mitty (3:39), which briefly gives Thurber his due; The Look of Life (5:01); That’s a Shark! (5:57), which has Iceland standing in for Greenland; The Music of Walter Mitty (4:01); Icelandic Adventure (3:26); Nordic Casting (3:51); Titles of Walter Mitty (2:49), a look at title designer Kyle Cooper’s playful opening; Sights and Sounds of Production (5:11); Pre-Viz (4:15); “Stay Alive” by Jose Gonzales (4:22); and, Theatrical Trailer (1:55).