Sometimes familiarity breeds contempt. Sometimes boredom is just a clear sign of a person’s lack of imagination. Sometimes movie critics fall prey to both of these malaises. Something like this has happened when it comes to two films well worth seeing which have emerged during this holiday season. I am referring to Saving Mr. Banks and the Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Here are two films you can actually take your family to see (though neither one of them are kids movies), and they could actually prompt meaningful and interesting and even prolonged discussion (not to be confused with tweeting and texting).
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is of course the most famous short story of James Thurber, which appeared in the New Yorker long long ago (indeed long before I was born). It’s a great story, including in many anthologies, and has been required reading in one English class or another throughout my life time. The story is about a man who goes shopping with his wife and zones out— having five rather interesting daydreams, none of which really bear any resemblance to those of the Walter Mitty in Ben Stiller’s enjoyable two hour film. The film does not seek to reproduce the story, but rather to update it. The premise of the movie is that Life magazine is about to fold as a physical magazine (something it actually did twice, most recently in 2007), and one of its employees, Walter Mitty is the space cadet in charge of negatives from which covers are produced. Now Walter, outside his head, has never had a real adventure in his life. Indeed he would not know one it if came up and bit him. When Facebook asks him to fill in some personal data like, most interesting trip he has ever taken, he has next to nothing to report. This is about to change however, because the negative for the final Life cover, sent by an award winning photographer (played ably by Sean Penn) has gone missing. Mitty is ordered to come up with the negative or else, which produces a desperation trip to Greenland, Iceland, and the Himalayas chasing the elusive photographer. Finally, Walter has a real adventure to relate…. but what he wants more than anything else is to strike up a relationship with his co-worker, played beautifully by Kristin Wiig. We saw this film in X-D in Jacksonville, Fla. with my sis and my Mom, and it was well worth the extra coin to see it in extra large and extra vivid. The scenery when Walter actually travels is breath-taking. Some of the critics of this film have complained that Ben Stiller (who both directs and stars as Mitty in this film) seems incapable of showing some emotional range and depth. Said critics seem to have ignored the fact that Walter Mitty is a shy person, who breaks into a rash even at the thought of asking a girl out. In my view, Ben Stiller provides a perfect portrayal of this likable ‘dream-machine’ of a man. If there is a moral to this film it is that while imagination can run wild, reality is always more vivid, more wild than even our wildest dreams, if we will but take the risk to experience it. And who knows, even our most fervent dreams may come true if we will but take a few steps of faith.
As for ‘Saving Mr. Banks’ this is, and is not, a film about Mary Poppins. If you were expecting a kids movie, or a Disney movie in that sense of the phrase, then abandon hope. This is a film about one Ms. Travers the author of Mary Poppins, and about the difficult process and time Walt Disney had of convincing her to sign over the rights of her novel. If you do not know, or do not remember, the story of Mary Poppins, you might want to read up on it before seeing the film. The film tells us the back story about a man who turns out to be Ms. Travers father, an alcoholic who needed to be saved by a nanny, and as becomes clear over time, this is what Mary Poppins is actually about.
Emma Thompson will rightfully be nominated for many awards for this film, and Tom Hanks deserves some credit as well (as does Paul Giamatti who plays yet another splendid cameo role). As things turn out, the movie juxtaposes the real life struggles growing up of one Helen Goff (aka Ms. Travers, aka the daughter of the man called Mr. Banks) in Australia, with the equally difficult struggles of Walt Disney in convincing Ms. Travers to let her brainchild appear on the silver screen. Were I to choose one of these films I would most enjoy seeing again today (which happens to be my birthday), I would go with the whimsical romance of Mr. Mitty.