Walter is a quiet guy who has a hard time living in reality. He wishes there was more to his life. In fact, he wishes it so much that it’s pretty common for him to drift off into imaginary adventures at any time during the day.
When he imagines himself leaping into heroic action or standing up for the downtrodden, that’s when Walter feels most alive. That’s when he’s living by the ABCs of a full life: He’s adventurous, brave and creative in those daydreaming moments. His real life, well, feels more like the he’s living by the ZZZs.
It’s not that he doesn’t work hard at his job or make the right choices when it comes to caring for his aging mother. He enjoys being a negative asset manager at LIFE magazine. Developing photos by great photographers like Sean O’Connell is his passion. But when he walks down the magazine’s office corridors―hallways flanked by blown-up LIFE covers of great men and women―Walter simply feels small and unimportant.
On top of that, the magazine is transitioning from being a print publication to an online-only entity. Folks are being fired by the gross and everything is looking pretty bleak. And wouldn’t you know it, somehow the photo for the final print edition’s cover has gone missing—and folks are pointing in Walter’s direction.
He’ll just have to track that illusive adventuring photog down to see if maybe he never turned over the negative in the first place. It’s the only thing he can think of doing. Based on the other pictures still on the roll, the guy is likely in Greenland. Or maybe he’s in the Himalayas somewhere. No matter. Walter just has to do what he has to do to find him.
Of course that won’t be very easy for a guy who can barely work up the nerve to drive 50 miles from home.
You know where this is going, right? While trying to find the photographer, Walter actually starts living out some of the very things he and others like him have been fantasizing about. He jumps out of a helicopter into the ocean near Greenland, swims with sharks and skateboards toward an erupting volcano. And through those adventures this meek and mild guy realizes that life isn’t something to fear as much as it’s something to relish.
In fact, when Walter finally finds O’Connell, the two wait for an elusive snow leopard to come out of hiding. It’s a quiet, unique moment for Walter, especially since O’Connell never takes a photo of the beautiful beast when it appears, choosing instead to simply gaze at it. Thus, the photographer expresses his deep desire to enjoy small special moments when they appear. And this gives Walter a new perspective he carries over into his life back home.
Walter talks about the impact his dad’s death had on him when he was a teen. At that point he put his own life plans on hold and dutifully picked up the mantle of supporting his mom and younger sister. And we see that their family has stayed close and loving because of his sacrificial choice. Beyond that, he begins to develop a caring and nurturing relationship with a single-mother co-worker named Cheryl. Their relationship grows—remaining chaste and sincere.
O’Connell gives Walter a handmade wallet imprinted with a lengthy inscription, part of which says, “To draw closer to each other and feel―that is the purpose of life.” So Walter eventually gains the nerve to approach his boss and point out the need to value and support the people who gave of themselves to build the magazine, rather than treat them callously.
The movie’s soundtrack features most of the David Bowie song “Major Tom,” which includes the lyrics, “Check ignition and may God’s love be with you.”
A group of Chilean sailors pulling into port are said to be “horny” and very eager to visit a local strip club. Walter speaks of the reputation a character from the musical Grease has for teenage sex (and smoking, too). He struggles with a Greenlander’s garbled English, mistaking eruption for erection. There’s some drunken talk about infidelity.
During one of his flights of fancy, Walter imagines himself leaping into a burning building to save someone’s pet. In another, he and his boss slip into a superhero-like battle as they smash through an elevator and a high-rise’s plate glass window, slam to the street below, rip up chunks of tarmac, and tumble and batter each other.
Walter also finds himself in some real-world danger as he leaps out of that helicopter into the frigid ocean water, just misses being gobbled up by a shark and barely outruns the ashy clouds of an erupting volcano. While riding a bike, Walter runs into a road sign and cuts his forehead. He gets into a scuffle at a bar.
One s-word. One misuse of Jesus’ name, four or five exclamations of “oh my god.” Walter calls his boss a “d–k.” Also, “h‑‑‑” and “kick a‑‑” (twice each). “What the …?” is blurted out and left unfinished.
Several men in an isolated bar in Greenland drink beer from large, boot-shaped glasses. One obviously inebriated guy sings karaoke and staggers around before walking out to pilot a helicopter. Mitty hesitates but decides to jump onboard too, throwing all proper caution to the (drunken) wind in his effort to be “courageous.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a very loose adaptation of the 1939 James Thurber short story (which was previously made into a Danny Kaye movie in 1947). In this version Walter Mitty is a man of photographs and details. And the film reflects that aesthetically driven perspective throughout. It’s a beautifully shot story of a man who inch by inch, step by step goes from daydreaming about living a full and adventurous life to actually living one.
There are a few CGI-boosted imaginings that deliver superhero-like crash and bash. But it’s the real-world bits here that impress. In its most quiet instances, Mitty encourages moviegoers to relish and take advantage of the small, intimate moments of their lives―to live richly, love those around them fully and realize the blessings that life can often offer.
This isn’t a spiritual story. But it sometimes feels a little like one. It was Jesus, after all, who said, in John 10:10, “My purpose is to give [you] a rich and satisfying life.”
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has some rough edges. (We’ve felt them here.) It also proves to be positive, optimistic and, yes, surprising. For it is indeed surprising today to find a small, thoughtful movie that can be and do all that.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.