'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' is a well-intentioned, sweet adventure that resorts to obvious ploys in its effort to 'inspire' and 'uplift.'
In short: Office drone Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) escapes his mundane life though heroic, romantic and action-packed fantasies. But when Walter is forced to leave his small life and track down a legendary photographer (Sean Penn), he begins an adventure across the globe. (watch the trailer)
This film exists on two scales: this movie captures Walter's meek existence as well as his over-the-top, skewed fantasy world.
Stiller deserves credit for essentially playing two very different versions characters: awkward, 'real world' Walter - and his brave, fearless fantasy counterpart. Real world Walter never says the right thing - he is the antithesis of smooth or cool. 'Fantasy' Walt leaps from buildings, puts jerks in their place and gets the girl.
'Walter Mitty' is at its best in cross-cutting Walter's vivid, amazing daydreams against his mundane existence. But as the film moves along, 'Walter Mitty' becomes a series of small episodic adventures that never quite add up to one grand adventure.
Instead, the result is a series of pit stops around the globe, with Walter interacting with a number of quirky characters. These characters rarely add anything of thematic significance, often slow down the film's momentum and turn Walter's great adventure into a meandering journey all over the world.
One disappointing difference between the film adaptation and the original short ultimately changes the core of 'Walter Mitty.' In the short stories, Walter rarely - if ever - triumphs at the end of his daydreams. That fantasy Walt is brave, but he is not immune to failure. In this film, Walter's fantasies usually end on a victorious note - just before he's snapped back to reality.
This small difference fundamentally redefines the character's core themes. The short stories reveal a meek man who can't even ultimately win in his fantasies - allowing a commentary that is critical of escapist daydreaming. This film - by allowing Walter small, fleeting victories in his daydreams - has a central theme of living/experiencing life and not just imagining adventures.
Ultimately, this adaptation is about a man learning to live life and not merely exist. This sentiment is fine, except this sugary message is executed in a less than subtle manner - one that, at times, borders on insulting.
While various characters break down the meaning of life and living, the most blatant insulting example involves the motto of Life Magazine - a creed that preaches living life. The audience is then beaten over the head with this direct, wordy motto again and again and again. It's etched into a lobby wall, engraved into a gift and repeated more times than necessary.
Such needless repetition is not endearing - it comes across as a filmmaker's ill-advised way to never let the audience forget the film's core theme.
An audience specifically instructed to 'be inspired' cannot be genuinely inspired by an ineffectual story and manipulative storytelling.
Final verdict: 'Walter Mitty' strives to tell an life-changing, inspiring story - but fails due to its jagged, wandering story and near-insulting spelling out of the film's central theme. 'Forrest Gump' is how to execute/weave an episodic grand adventure with meaningful themes - 'Walter Mitty' is no 'Forrest Gump.'