Ben Stiller in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

The dream world and reality blend beautifully in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the latest from director/star Ben Stiller.

Stiller uses the short story by James Thurber—about a man prone to elaborate daydreams—as a springboard to something altogether new, and surprisingly intimate. This is essentially a $90 million art film that maintains a nice, indie sensibility to go along with moments of grand spectacle.

Stiller, in one of his best performances, plays the title character, an introverted man who handles photo negatives for Life magazine. After a vivid daydream in which he saves a cat from a building moments before it explodes, he wanders into Life’s lobby—and finds out the magazine will be going online-only. (This actually happened a while back in the real world. Life has been publishing only occasional special issues for years, and doesn’t even exist as its own full website anymore).

In other words, Walter, in the digital age, is quickly becoming an unnecessary entity at his job. To add insult to injury, he’s getting harassed by Ted (a sinisterly funny Adam Scott), the super-douche tasked with transitioning the magazine to its online format. Ted mocks him in front of fellow employees and throws paper clips as Walter daydreams about co-worker Cheryl (a sweetly charming Kristen Wiig). Walter imagines epic, crazily staged battles with Ted, including one in which they blast out of the side of the office building—all while battling over a Stretch Armstrong doll.

Crisis looms when a negative from star photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), the negative meant for the magazine’s final cover, goes missing. Walter, with help from Cheryl, springs into action on a quest to find the negative; the journey leads him through Greenland, Iceland, Afghanistan and the Himalayas. Along the way, he reignites former passions (like skateboarding and hiking)—and those daydreams become more and more unnecessary.

This movie qualifies as a nice love letter to Kristen Wiig, who represents possibly the coolest onscreen love interest on 2013. Her Cheryl has a nice accessibility to go along with her beauty and humor; it’s no wonder Walter has a crush. Stiller and Wiig have genuine chemistry, and Wiig’s performance here has none of her more zany comic tendencies.

Penn is downright incredible in his one scene, and Patton Oswalt shines as an eHarmony consultant who is so friendly that he could only be found in a movie. Shirley MacLaine (who will be at the McCallum Theatre later this month) is mighty convincing as Walter’s mom—no easy feat, considering most of us are acutely aware that Stiller’s mom is Anne Meara.

There’s nothing forced in Stiller’s depiction of Walter, and nothing jarring about the transition as he comes out of his shell. When we find out some of the reasons Walter lapsed into a life of daydreaming rather than dream fulfillment, Walter becomes a complete character rather than the fleeting representation from Thurber’s story.

Stiller’s performance varies between subtle and extremes, with most of those extremes happening in the daydreams. In the quieter moments, this is the sort of well-modulated performance that ranks with his work in The Royal Tenenbaums and Flirting With Disaster. He’s also a pretty good skateboarder; that’s really him riding at quite high speeds down a mountain road in Iceland.

Cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh deserves major kudos for his stunning work here. Also notable is the soundtrack, with a roster of artists like David Bowie, Of Monsters and Men, and Arcade Fire; it truly bolsters the viewing experience.

The message Stiller is delivering is obvious: Many of our daydreams can be just a hop, skip and skateboard away from being realities. With its simple message elegantly and majestically portrayed, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is one of 2013’s best movies.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is playing at theaters across the valley.