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Underrated 'Walter Mitty' remains a funny, inspiring, family-friendly gem of a movie
Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) - photo by 20th Century Fox

August is fading fast, and that’s bad news if you’re a movie fan.

By the time the kids head back to school, the summer movie season is winding into that cinematic junk drawer of early fall. If you missed something earlier in the year, now would be a great time to catch it because the new pickings are going to be slim for a while.

Or better yet, I suggest you dig into movies of yore and spend some quality time with Walter Mitty.

If you haven’t already seen “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” it's time to watch it. And if you have seen it, I hope you're nodding your head and thinking about giving it another watch.

When you cover 200-odd movies a year, it gets harder and harder for something to really stand out, but “Walter Mitty” still springs to mind right away whenever someone asks me for a recommendation. It was released at the end of my first year of penning weekly reviews back in 2013, and it has stuck with me ever since.

Ben Stiller’s creative adaptation of the old James Thurber short story is one of those criminally underrated gems. (It has a rating of 51 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, which just goes to show you can't trust all critics.) The plot follows the adventures of a middle-aged daydreamer named Walter Mitty (played by Stiller) as he comes out of his shell in a dramatic and heartwarming way.

Mitty works for Life magazine, and when a crucial film negative goes missing, he has to leave both the country and his comfort zone to chase down the elusive photographer (played by Sean Penn) who shot it.

To be clear, a big part of my adoration for this film comes from my own background in photography. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t elaborate too much, but the film’s third act features one of the best photography lessons I’ve come across in years of shooting.

But aside from the photography lesson, the film’s primary message is more universal. Mitty is a notorious daydreamer, and Stiller has a good time spinning off into his character’s frequent fantasies whenever he imagines himself coming up with the perfect comeback against a jerk at work (Adam Scott) or finding the perfect way of impressing the girl of his dreams (Kristen Wiig).

Over the course of the film, though, Mitty has to engage with the real world, and doing so spins him off into more fascinating places than he ever might have imagined. For a culture increasingly embedded in the fantasies of our various online existences, it’s a timely message.

Speaking of our current culture, “Walter Mitty” also stands apart by celebrating the ability of the little guy. Half the time we go to the movies, it feels like we’re following the adventures of some kind of super-powered “chosen one,” a Superman or a Luke Skywalker. We see the trope everywhere in young adult literature (and their big-screen adaptations), but Walter Mitty is just a regular, relatable guy. If he can have a grand adventure, any of us can.

It’s also interesting to note that “Walter Mitty” is a solid PG-rated movie, and not in a dumbed-down or forced way. The story never requires any edgier content, and you don’t even notice its absence until you reflect on what you just saw. It’s rare these days to find a quality PG-rated movie that isn’t primarily aimed at an audience under 10 (“Leave No Trace” is one recent example), but you can safely watch “Walter Mitty” with your mother. Speaking of which, one moment late in the film pays tribute to mothers in a way few films have.

Of course, there’s an element of irony to the idea of recommending a two-hour movie that challenges you get out of the house and embrace life. So here’s a compromise:

Whether you watch the film to fill space at the end of the summer season, need a family-friendly choice for Labor Day or just want an emotional boost, go ahead and check out “Walter Mitty.” But let it inspire you to do something afterward. Book the trip you've been dreaming of. Make the phone call you keep putting off. Register for the class you've had your eye on. Do something worthy of a picture in your own Life magazine.

Good movies should inspire us to be better. “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” is one of those movies.

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