Set up as a tentpole holiday release for family audiences, "Night at the Museum" doesn't have the most prestigious of behind-the-scenes pedigree. Director Shawn Levy's biggest previous claims to fame have been 2003's vomit-inducing "Cheaper by the Dozen
" and 2006's mediocre "The Pink Panther
," while screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon are fresh off of 2006's horrendous "Let's Go to Prison
." If that doesn't bode poorly for a collaboration, what does? After seeing "Night at the Museum," the good news is that this is a step up for all involved. The bad news, unfortunately, is that their latest project is still an underwhelming, virtually story-free failure.
Divorced father Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) can't hold down a steady job or keep an apartment for longer than a few months, and his ex-wife Erica (Kim Raver) worries that his lack of direction and an inconsistent lifestyle is setting a poor example for their young son Nick (Jake Cherry). Desperate to take any position an employment agency throws at him, Larry is hired to replace retiring workers Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Gus (Mickey Rooney) and Reginald (Bill Cobbs) as night watchman at Manhattan's Museum of Natural History. What at first appears to be a rather mundane and lonely job readily becomes anything but when the displaysa skeletal dinosaur; various wildlife; miniature diorama figures, including a Wild West cowboy (Owen Wilson); wax sculptures of Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) and Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), etc.come alive.
Borrowing heavily from at least a half-dozen other movies, all of them better, "Night at the Museum" is most reminiscent of 1995's "Jumanji" and 1988's "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." The problem is that there is no real conflict or driving storyline until the last twenty minutes, as opposed to "Jumanji" where dangers had to be overcome in order to win at a board game sprung to life. The living museum displays, meanwhile, might be a little rambunctious, but they are also more or less harmless, right down to the fossilized dinosaur whose only interest is in playing a friendly game of fetch with Larry. The picture follows a familiar patternLarry is left alone in the museum overnight and tries to retain order over the chaos of the historical figures and animals, and then does the same thing the next night and the next nightthat quickly grows tiresome. The elements that should pose a threat, such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex and Attila the Hun, are depicted as too sugary and kiddiefied, while an overall sense of wonder at the extraordinary premise is only captured once or twice.
More noble is director Shawn Levy's attempt to bring fun back to history, as Larry is intrigued about the backgrounds of the characters he meets and starts to research them. The joys of learning is a valuable lesson, but it isn't delved into enough for the viewer to really be taught anything about the historical figures they are seeing. In this respect, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" did a vastly superior job at informing its audience, as the title teenage slackers round up the iconic people via a time-traveling phone booth and use them in their presentation for a school history project.
Technical credits are widely varied. The opening titles, made to look like three-dimensional objects in the frame rather than simple text, is a shameless steal from 2002's "Panic Room
." For a big-budget studio picture, the visual effects are hit-and-miss. The skeletal dinosaur is pretty seamlessly incorporated into the action, while the green screen work is so shoddy that one can practically see the cut-and-paste lines. The musical orchestrations by Alan Silvestri (2006's "The Wild
") are generic and too often overstate their case in scenes where less would have been more. The climactic chase through a snowscape of Central Park is like a picture-perfect postcard, but the use of a soundstage to stand in for the actual location is quite obvious when no breath is ever seen coming out of the characters' mouths.
Ben Stiller (2004's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
") has made a living in the last few years at playing over-the-top buffoons to the point where he has started to make a mockery of his acting abilities. As the directionless Larry Daley, Stiller gets to play things straight and does a respectable if bland job. His rolethat of a ne'er-do-well dad who yearns for his son to be proud of himis such a cliché, though, that few performers could make it fresh. More understated and sweet is his relationship with history enthusiast and museum tour guide Rebecca, played charismatically by Carla Gugino (2005's "Sin City
Larry and Rebecca's kinda-sorta romance is complimented by another starry-eyed love story between Theodore Roosevelt and Indian princess Sacajawea. Robin Williams (2006's "Man of the Year
") does enough to transform himself into former President Roosevelt, albeit a wax representation of the real guy, that one eventually forgets about the actor's usual manic comedic persona. And as Cecil, a prankster night watchman whose position Larry fills, veteran actor Dick Van Dyke is a delight to see again onscreenthat is, until a third-act development comes out of left field and puts a damper on his likable character.
"Night at the Museum" isn't an utter disasterimpressively, there are no fart jokes and only one urine gagbut it is a dreary special effects-laden fantasy adventure with zero thrills and only intermittent heart. A reference to "Brokeback Mountain
" must be pinpointed for the embarrassment that it is, destined to leave adults audibly groaning or rolling their eyes and kids clueless. All in all, most children like some light scares or hair-raising moments to go along with their laughter, and the main idea behind "Night at the Museum" is rife with possibilities for it. Alas, director Shawn Levy is content to make a watered-down, middle-of-the-road family pic. The figures on display at the Museum of Natural History have left their imprint on history and still endure today. The same does not hold true of "Night at the Museum," which will be forgotten about on the way out of the theater and to the car.