A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring and directed by Ben Stiller, may be based on James Thurber's short story, but it's very different from it and the original 1947 movie. It's a tween- and teen-friendly tale full of hope, with a can-do, go-big-or-go-home message that's backed by sensational special effects. Expect some swearing, including "hell" and "s--t," and some jarring scenes of conflict, though no graphic violence.
What's the story?
Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), is the negative asset manager at Life magazine, which means he handles the negatives that arrive from the publication's best shutterbugs and makes sure they're done justice when they're processed and printed. The biggest talent to endorse Walter's skills is Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), a globe-trotting, adventure-seeking, and often unreachable photographer. But that's as close to adventure as Walter gets. He's a devoted son to a mother (Shirley MacLaine) who's keenly observant of his life; a good brother to his underemployed actress-sister, Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), and a sweet colleague to Cheryl, a woman he has a crush on (Kristen Wiig) but can't seem to approach. He's even friendly with the customer service rep (Patton Oswalt) at the dating site he just joined, but hasn't really taken advantage of. But Walter's carefully choreographed and simple life gets complicated quickly when Sean sends a negative to be published for Life's final cover, and it goes missing. Walter will have to leave his nest to find Sean, or risk the wrath of Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), who's managing the magazine's transition online and deciding who stays and who goes.
Is it any good?
See this film for the cinematography, which frames nearly every shot like a perfectly composed photograph of the likes you'd see in, say, Life magazine, where Walter works in the movie. The colors are saturated, the edges are crisp. And there's a monumentality to it all, which is perfect for a film examining the measure of a man, in this case the unassuming Mitty, who gave up on his global-scale dreams once his father died and he needed to help support his family.
Stiller and company do a fine job -- it's gratifying to see Sean Penn tweak his adventuresome, elusive image in the role of the adventuresome, elusive O'Connell -- and especially Oswalt, who takes what's essentially a voicing role and elevates it. But the script is too spare for a story that poses big questions. (The original short story by James Thurber was brief, too.) And nearly everyone in it, including the ostensibly larger-than-life O'Connell (whose idea of profundity appears to be not taking a photo if he wants to just be in the moment), lands squarely in the midrange, characterization-wise, leaving no one truly exceptional for Walter to aspire to. Walter Mitty is fun to watch, but it still plays it safe.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the messages in the movie. What makes Walter finally take action? Does the movie try to inspire you to do something? What holds people back from pursuing their dreams?
Talk about the workplace needling that goes on at Walter's office once the downsizing is announced. Is this bullying? How does Walter handle it, and why does the bully get away with it for a while?
If you've read the short story, how does the movie compare? What are some of the challenges of turning a book or story into a movie?
- In theaters: December 25, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: April 15, 2014
- Cast: Adam Scott, Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig
- Director: Ben Stiller
- Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
- Genre: Comedy
- Topics: Adventures, Book characters
- Run time: 114 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: some crude comments, language and action violence
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.