Adaptation Adventure

Adventurous, Brave and Creative Blu-ray Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

April 17, 2014Ben MK

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The quintessence of Ben Stiller

By Ben Mk

Walter Mitty is just your average, ordinary guy. He carries a briefcase to work, struggles with online dating and harbors a secret crush on a co-worker. But in his daydreams, he saves dogs from burning buildings, climbs mountains in the arctic and is fearless when it comes to fighting for what he believes in. After years of working at the same job and sticking to the same routines day in and day out, he's finally arrived at a crossroads in life. And life for Walter Mitty is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

Ben Stiller returns to the director's chair with The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which he also stars as the film's titular daydreamer, a man prone to escapist flights of fantasy wherever he goes, whether he's standing on a subway platform or sipping his morning coffee. Walter's limitless imagination is the antithesis of his everyday life, which is as mundane as it gets. But his buttoned-down existence is turned upside down one morning, when he discovers that his workplace for the past sixteen years, LIFE magazine, has been acquired, and that the next print issue of the magazine will be its last. And to make matters worse, the photo (or more precisely, the photo negative) that has been chosen to grace the final cover — one that he, as Negative Assets Manager, is responsible for — has gone missing.

Enlisting the help of co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), who also happens to be the very same co-worker whom he has a crush on, Walter attempts to track down the man who snapped the prized photo: elusive photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), who has termed it "the quintessence of life". But Walter soon realizes that if he's to succeed, he'll need to venture outside of his comfort zone. And so he embarks on the adventure of a lifetime, a journey that will take him from his humble home in New York City all the way around the globe — to Greenland, Iceland and the Himalayas — where he'll fight a shark, outrun an erupting volcano and discover the very purpose of life.

Loosely based on renowned humorist James Thurber's 1939 short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty drastically reinterprets the character for modern audiences, retaining only the notion that he's an ordinary man with an extraordinary imagination and using it to drive its story of adventure and self-discovery. But despite the liberties taken in reshaping the source material, there's an unmistakable sense of sentimentality present in Stiller's version of Walter Mitty that harkens back to the tone of Thurber's original vision. Call him an analog man living in a digital world, but Walter (like the print version of LIFE that's being supplanted by its online equivalent in the film) is himself a relic of times gone by, especially when you consider that his job very likely did exist back in 1939, and that he prefers keeping tabs with his chequebook over using a smartphone.

It's this disconnect between Walter and the modern world that adds an air of romanticism to the story, heightening the impact of his fantasies and making his transformed outlook on life all the more uplifting. Of course, Stiller's portrayal of the character has something to do with it as well. Straddling the fine line between comedy and drama throughout the film, he's absolutely convincing as a man who experiences an epiphany that allows him to transform his fantasies into reality. And he even manages to incorporate a few silly comedic moments (à la Zoolander and Tropic Thunder) along the way, all of which suit the tone and intent of the story to a T — even the delightfully over-the-top action sequence in which Walter battles his nemesis, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), over a childhood toy — with the exception of an errant Benjamin Button fantasy that too closely resembles an MTV Movie award spoof for its own good.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty daydreams its way onto Blu-ray with an exceptionally crisp and vivid HD presentation that's every bit as eye-opening as the fantasies that spring from Walter's flourishing imagination. From the burst of primary colors that infuse the opening titles sequence to the lush, green Icelandic landscapes that Walter bikes and skateboards through later in the film, cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's broad color palette (which only becomes more intense as the story progresses) pops off the screen with the intensity of Stiller, Wiig and Penn's piercing blue eyes. Equally impressive is the pinpoint sharpness inherent in the image, as evidenced by the superb clarity of the tiny type interwoven into the visuals during the opening credits, which reveals fine detail in faces, fabrics and landscapes, adding subtle depth to the picture. Music also plays an integral role in the film, evoking emotion through composer Theodore Shapiro's bittersweet score and the vocals of artists like José González and David Bowie; and the disc's DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is nuanced enough to ensure that each musical note resonates clearly, yet powerful enough to deliver on the sonic impact of action effects like crashing waves and a rumbling volcano.

20th Century Fox's Blu-ray release wouldn't be complete without the usual DVD and iTunes/UltraViolet digital copies, which are included here, accompanied by just over an hour of HD special features (most of which are exclusive to Blu-ray, save for a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes). A series of nine Deleted, Extended and Alternate Scenes kicks things off, running for nearly 16 minutes in total. These largely focus on Walter's fantasies, with the most noteworthy scenes being extended versions of the arctic mountain climber and Benjamin Button sequences, but there's also an alternate opening of sorts (revealing more of Walter's morning routine). Next up is nearly 40 minutes of behind-the-scenes featurettes, which are comprised of 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, Skateboarding through Iceland, Ted-Walter Fight and Ted-Walter Fight Pre-Viz Early Version. Each featurette lasts no more than a few minutes, but they manage to cover quite a bit of ground between them, touching on topics ranging from the film's roots in James Thurber's 1939 short story to its score, casting, stuntwork and production design. A photo gallery containing a dozen or so images, titled Gallery: Reference Photography, is also included, providing a peek at some of the archival photos that influenced the film's visual aesthetic. Finally, the extras are rounded out with a 4-minute music video for José González's 'Stay Alive' (which plays an anthemic role in the film) and the film's original 2-minute theatrical trailer.

With The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller is in top form as both actor and director — toning down the slapstick humor that characterized his last two directorial features in favor of something with more emotional resonance, while channeling both his comedic and his dramatic personas into the role — and the result is at once funny, poignant and uplifting. Everything about the film is altogether enjoyable. And Fox's Blu-ray release follows suit, with a superb A/V presentation — perfectly capturing the beautiful and surreal visual imagery — and a well-rounded set of bonus features, making The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on Blu-ray a secret truly worth discovering.

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  ★★★★
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  ★★★★★
Special Features  —  ★★★½

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