In 2013, a beautifully directed movie called “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was shown in theaters but failed miserably with the critics. I’m here to set the record straight: This movie is one of the most artistically beautiful and realistic that I’ve seen in years.
For those who don’t know the movie, check out the IMDb page here, and keep in mind that this article is chock-full of spoilers. This movie was directed by and starred Ben Stiller as Walter Mitty, a mild-mannered, ordinary man that works for LIFE magazine.
When it’s announced that the magazine will be moving to an online format and they will be releasing the final installment of LIFE, it falls to Walter to provide the image for the cover – the only problem is that the negative to the photo he needs is missing. Walter then goes on a wild goose-chase searching for the photographer.
From the beginning, we get a glimpse into Walter’s brain and his little fantastical scenarios he comes up with. He goes into a trance-like state while he thinks about impossible situations he could get himself into, which he refers to as “zoning out.” These fantasies always have a child-like quality to them, whether it’s superhero powers or impish wordplay or even Benjamin Button syndrome. This is important to notice, and I’ll come back to it later.
We see Walter as this very normal, ordinary office worker. He’s worked at the same company for 16 years, he has an eHarmony account that he rarely uses, and he hasn’t really travelled anywhere. During the title sequence when Walter walks to work, we see splashes of color coating the city on his way, leading up to the LIFE magazine building. Inside, everything is moving quickly and just full of, well, life! It’s a drastic contrast to Walter’s apartment and even Walter himself.
The first clue we get on why Walter zones out so much comes from his family. His mother is moving into a new retirement home, and Walter and his sister are helping her pack her belongings. We see a photo of a young Walter, with a skateboard and a mohawk, of all things!
We find out that he had plans to travel the world once he graduated, until his father died suddenly. We also witness Walter taking care of all the arrangements for his mother and guaranteeing that she will be able to keep the piano his father bought for her.
So, you get the picture. Walter is an extra-unordinary guy. He works, he takes care of his family, and he balances his checkbook. His life is just plain boring, that is, until he decides to go find Sean O’Connell, the long-time freelance photographer for LIFE magazine. Sean left a note for Walter calling a certain photo “the quintessence of life.” Walter knows that he needs to find it if he wants any chance of keeping his job, so he follows a lead to Greenland.
Once Walter leaves America, we get to witness his transformation into a truly extraordinary man. He starts taking risks he would never have taken, and actually doing things as unbelievable as some of his fantasies.
He sheds his suit and tie for a fisherman’s sweater, he trades in his briefcase for a backpack, he faces death, and he explores so many incredible places and meets all kinds of people. He makes connections around the world, connections that last only for the briefest period of time but mean so much in the moment.
Walter’s story literally follows the hero’s journey to a tee. He has a call to adventure, a push in the right direction from a woman he’s interested in, a series of tests and trials, not to mention when he nearly gives up and goes back to America before deciding to see his journey through (the revelation), a transformation into an adventurer, and the eventual end of his trip and return to life. He even meets his hero, Sean O’Connell.
When Walter returns, the LIFE building is being stripped down – it’s lost its shine, and now Walter is the colorful one radiating life. Walter stands up to the man who fires him, but rather than take it in a childish direction like all his previous fantasies, he acts as the bigger man, reminding his former-boss to think about how he treats people. It truly shows Walter’s growth from a guy with childish dreams to a man with wild experiences (I told you we'd come back to it).
My personal favorite part of the movie is when Walter talks to his family once he returns. He apologizes due to having to sell the piano, to which his mother replies, “Look around, Walter. We’re all grown up here.” With these few words, I believe that she says everything she needs to say.
Lots of movies will come right out and say exactly what the problem in a relationship is, or how two people view each other, but this movie leaves the perfect amount up to the viewer’s interpretation. A common complaint about the movie was that it didn’t clearly connect important details together, but I argue that this is what makes the movie so incredible- it’s entirely up to the viewer to look for the deeper meaning.
When Walter’s mom says everyone is grown up, she’s telling Walter that he doesn’t need to keep putting his life on hold to take care of his family. It’s a beautiful moment because it’s real – people don’t actually analyze their personal relationships out loud to each other in real life, but it’s such a common trope in movies. The simplicity in the words said between Walter and his family reflects a real family with complex problems.
All in all, I think “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of the best movies out there. Artistic, humorous, intelligent, child-like, and fantastical – all accurate words when describing not only the movie, but also Walter Mitty himself.