Chuck Koplinski: 'Mitty' a magical reminder of the possible

While I would hardly call it cutting-edge cinema, Ben Stiller's "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" is a rather risky proposition in this day and age.

As the poet, philosopher and sports agent Jerry Maguire once said, "We live in a cynical world," and as such we're always on guard, weary of believing in anything that has the appearance of being innocent or nave. We don't want to be taken in; we don't want to look like a fool when we embrace something as simple and noble as The Golden Rule, only to have our house robbed on Christmas Eve.

So we suspect anything and everyone and have no problem ripping things to shreds that have an optimistic outlook on life; film critics are often the chief offenders when movies labeled "old-fashioned" come our way.

Stiller has no problem touting notions of this sort in "Mitty," and I for one applaud his bravery, delivering a $90 million parable about the power that comes with living your life without fear — and the notion that small kindnesses and simple joys are what make our time here on Earth worthwhile.

Yep, it's as corny as a three-hanky tear-jerker from the silent film era, but the movie embraces these notions fully, never once conveying a touch of snarkiness or condescension as it sends its hero — and us — on a globetrotting journey of affirmation that will serve as a sobering wake-up call for those of us adrift in a world of stress, tension and fear.

Much like the hero in James Thurber's classic short story and the 1947 film version, Mitty (Stiller) is a daydreamer, a modest man prone to flights of fancy in which he sees himself as an erstwhile hero dispatching bad guys, saving pets from burning buildings or sweeping a beautiful woman off her feet. He has time to concoct these fantasies as he lives alone in a small apartment, doesn't date and works in the basement at Life Magazine, where he is the photo archivist, developing film and cataloging the pictures that have been the bread-and-butter of this periodical.

Mitty's world is turned upside down when he receives a roll of film from his favorite photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn), a daring journalist who puts himself into hot spots to chronicle the adventure of everyday life. In a message, he tells Mitty that the 25th picture on the roll contains the "quintessence of life," which the archivist mentions to his new boss Ted (Adam Scott), who then plans to use it on the cover of the last issue of the magazine, as they are converting it to an online version, meaning many staffers will lose their jobs.

Problem is, the picture isn't in the roll and in a panic, Mitty sets off to track down O'Connell in an effort to see if he has the snapshot, something that has sparked his curiosity.

What follows is a continent-spanning adventure that takes Mitty to Greenland, Iceland, the Himalayas and many stops in between as he pursues the ever-elusive O'Connell. Along the way, he's forced to deal with volcanic eruptions, drunk helicopter pilots, dangerous weather and treacherous terrain all the while gaining confidence ... and perhaps enough courage to ask out his co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a beautiful, outgoing woman who leaves him flummoxed and tongue-tied whenever he approaches her.

Using the death of the print edition of Life magazine as a metaphor for Mitty's stagnation and the need to evolve as the world changes around you is an obvious one. But it's nonetheless effective as it serves as a plausible launching pad for the character's own change.

Equally clever is using his profession as a still picture archivist (who uses film anymore?) as a way of showing how outmoded his perception of life is. Like Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations," Mitty has allowed fear to stop him: He stands frozen in the face of possibility and petrified at the notion he could get hurt if he opens himself up.

The film does a marvelous job of getting us to sympathize with him, thus making his ultimate life change a joyous occasion. Stiller does a marvelous job of achieving a sense of the epic — lovingly capturing the grandeur of inspiring parts of the world most of us will never experience. The film proudly wears its optimistic heart on its sleeve, and its sincerity makes it easy to be swept away in a positive worldview if you're open to the notion.

While some may have fun holding "Mitty" up in ridicule, that would be a petty approach that disregards the many rewards it contains.

'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty' (4 stars out of 4)

Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristin Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn, Kathryn Hahn, Shirley MacLaine, Adrian Martinez, Olafur Darri Olafsson and Patton Oswalt.

Directed by Ben Stiller; produced by Stuart Cornfeld, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., John Goldwyn and Stiller; screenplay by Steve Conrad (based on the short story by James Thurber).

A 20th Century-Fox release. 114 minutes. Rated PG (crude comments, language and action violence). At the AMC Village Mall 6, Carmike 13 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

Enough hot air in Burgundy's tank for a successful "Anchorman 2." (3 stars) The folks at Paramount Pictures certainly didn't do director Adam McKay and his crew from "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues" any favors, what with the blanket promotion strategy they adopted to sell the film.

During the month leading up to the movie's release, it seemed as though you couldn't turn your head and not see Will Ferrell's goofy mug plastered on something. And while some of the promotional stunts were inspired (co-anchoring an actual newscast in North Dakota, doing a duet of "Ride Like the Wind" with Christopher Cross on "Jimmy Kimmel Live"), there was a sense of overkill. More than a few pundits speculated that there was no way the film could live up to the hype or anticipation that had been built.

The good news is that "Anchorman 2" was worth the wait, if just barely. While it is far too long and the gags a bit too familiar, there's still just enough inspired lunacy to make for an entertaining if not particularly groundbreaking time at the movies.

The film is playing at a disadvantage of McKay and Ferrell's own making. The first movie was so wildly irreverent and took the notion of cosmic randomness to such dizzying heights that it ended up being a fresh comic concoction. It didn't hurt that it was populated with lovable buffoons and contained so many quotable lines that it soon became a cult classic among film fans. The sequel doesn't have the power of newness, and coming up with something fresh for Burgundy and his crew is the millstone McKay and Ferrell, who co-wrote the script, labor under.

Perhaps the most inspired idea comes with the timing of the film as it takes place at the dawn of the 24-hour news cycle. Burgundy's (Ferrell) long-suffering wife Veronica (Christina Applegate) has been tapped to take over one of the prime national newscasts as news warhorse Mack Tannen (Harrison Ford) is retiring.

Hurt and in a snit, Burgundy quits his job, leaves his family and becomes a falling-down drunk. After six months of wandering in the wilderness he's rescued by Freddie Shapp (Dylan Baker) with an offer to anchor a segment at the Global News Network, the first station to be on the air 24/7. Burgundy agrees, on the condition his former news team — sportscaster Champ Kind (David Koechner), reporter Brian Fantana (Paul Rudd) and weatherman Brick Tamland (Steve Carell) — are included as well. Shapp agrees to this but fails to inform our hero that they will be manning the 2 to 5 a.m. slot of the telecast.

The premise is quite smart and ultimately lays the devolution of modern news programs at its hapless character's feet. The film shows Burgundy as the first news anchor to put a live car chase on the air as its lead story, while stunts such as doing the "new" drug, crack cocaine, on national TV becomes commonplace.

This notion of telling "the public what it wants to hear" results in the news team taking over the prime-time slot and leads other stations to neglect journalistic integrity in the race for ratings.

Movies of this sort always run the risk of being hit or miss as some gags work while others fall flat. Thankfully there are more hits than misses with Burgundy's journey to reunite the news team, his inappropriate conversations with his 6-year-old son ("Watch out for the He-Shes down by the dock area.") and a disastrous family dinner with his African-American boss (Meagan Good) and her family.

In the end, sitting through "Anchorman 2" winds up being like going to a high school reunion. You realize that while it's good to meet up with old friends, seeing them every 10 years is best for all concerned. After all, "familiarity breeds contempt," and I'd hate to feel that way toward characters I've grown so fond of.

"Dinosaurs" aims at young paleontologists. (2 stars) One thing you have to say for "Walking with Dinosaurs 3D" is it certainly delivers on its title. A big-screen version of the BBC series of the same name, the film is a visual wonder as directors Barry Cook and Neil Nightingale use the latest in 3-D photography to render these ancient creatures as realistically as those seen in "Jurassic Park."

However, delivering horrific scenes of these scaly monsters running amok and chewing on those of us who are a bit too slow is not the purpose of this feature. Rather, it sets out to educate young viewers about these fascinating creatures. (I should note that at the screening I attended it didn't so much educate the little ones sitting near me as much as validate everything they already knew. These dino-kids are REALLY bright.)

The movie is set up with a framing story that sees brother and sister Ricky (voice of Charlie Rowe) and Jade (Angourie Rice) on their way to see their Uncle Zack (Karl Urban), who just happens to be a paleontologist in Alaska. Once they arrive, the girl has no problem helping her uncle, while Ricky could care less — that is until he's visited by a raven (John Leguizamo) who tells him a story from the Cretaceous period about his ancestor Alex and his buddy Patchi (Justin Long), a young Pachyrhinosaurus.

The adventure these two embark on is standard fare for films of this sort as they must deal with attacks from far more fearsome creatures, have to contend with a forest fire and other natural threats as the herd of dinos migrates south, while Patchi meets and tries to impress his first love Juniper (Tiya Sircar).

With the target audience being anyone under age 12, the story has its share of crude humor, simplistic sight gags and very bad jokes. Chances are, parents and grandparents who are dragged to this one might be able to catch a quick nap, which is easier to get away with when you have those 3-D glasses to hide behind. Thankfully, Cook and Nightingale know just how long the attention span of their audience is and keep the running time under 90 minutes.

Still, thanks to the way the dinosaurs are brought to life, your attention might not wander, as there's no question that they are an impressive sight. In the end, you'll be reminded why these creatures have held children in their sway for so long as "Walking" reminds us how spectacular they were and the way in which they rekindle a sense of childlike wonder in all of us.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski. For his blog, head to news-gazette.com/blogs/cinema-scoping. Koplinski can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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