While I could never make a case for Night at the Museum as a good film, it deserves some kind of recognition for the amazing demographic range it aims to snare. It’s an effects-centered fantasy with an ambulatory T. Rex skeleton for the kids. It has the Ben Stiller appeal for the Generation X audience — and to goose that, Owen Wilson has a guest role. It boasts cult figure Ricky Gervais (from TV’s The Office and Extras) for the terminally hip. Robin Williams pops up — a lot — to amuse your mother. And for real nostalgia’s sake — and those of us who’ve racked up enough years to remember who they are — it brings old duffer Dick Van Dyke and even older duffer Mickey Rooney on board. There’s even a cute monkey for those who think simian value adds zing to just about any movie.
That covers just about all the bases there are — exempting babes in arms and the deceased, neither of whom are known for the moviegoing proclivities. Unfortunately, all this potential appeal never fulfills its promise.
It quickly becomes apparent that the film is pretty much a high concept in search of a plot. Once Larry Daley (Stiller) gets the night-guard gig and experiences his first evening with the unaccountably lively museum displays, the question quickly arises: Where is this going? We’ve already seen Larry chased by the T. Rex skeleton, menaced by Atilla (Patrick Gallagher, Final Destination 3) and his Huns, insulted by a talking Easter Island head, nearly eaten by lions, outwitted by a cunning capuchin, and being advised by Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) in the first 30 minutes of the movie — and that feels like little more than an extended version of the trailer. As a concept, it’s OK, but where can it go?
The answer provided by screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (both of Herbie Fully Loaded fame) is to repeat the encounters with the variation that Larry will attempt to master the situation. In theory, hilarity will ensue. In reality, mild and repetitive amusement ensues. And yet the movie’s only two-thirds over. What to do? Of course — let’s discover the plot! True, it’s not much of a plot, but it’s what Garant and Lennon have, and they’re not afraid to use it. Turns out there’s a reason for all this unseemly activity by stuffed animals and wax figures. And it also transpires that there’s dirty work afoot — the nature of which I’ll omit for the benefit of the potential 10 or 15 viewers past the age of 5 who can’t guess it.
Much of the film’s logic is wanting, especially since it makes a point that the wax figures of historical characters aren’t the historical characters, yet insists on affording them the knowledge and traits of those characters. The kids won’t notice the plot holes (just how would a 19th century cowboy and an ancient Roman know how to let the air out of a tire?), while parents may get a mild chuckle out of a gag based on one of the more famous lines from Brokeback Mountain (2005).
The technical side of the film ranges from the impressive (the T. Rex) to cheesy process work that would be right at home in a Bert I. Gordon giant-insect fear film from the 1950s. Shawn Levy’s direction of it all can be neatly summed up by noting that he doesn’t disgrace his earlier directorial efforts on Just Married (2003) and Cheaper by the Dozen (2003). At best, the film can be called likeably adequate. Rated PG for mild action, language and brief rude humor.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke