Night at the Museum is clearly designed to be one of those big, special effects-laden, mass appeal holiday blockbusters. Some critics might mean that in an insulting way, but not me. Surely thereís room for this kind of ultra-commercial, crowd-pleasing fare in the movie universe. I can definitely go for this sort of thing, especially during the hectic holiday season when relaxation is needed amidst the hustle and bustle of Christmas and New Years preparations. But, boy, do I wish that Iíd fallen under Night at the Museumís spell a little more than I did. The cast and premise are very appealing, yet the film itself just kind of sputters along, never really reaching its full potential. It doesnít exactly fail; it just decides not to grab for the brass ring.
Ben Stiller plays Larry Daley, a perpetually unsuccessful dreamer whose get-rich ideas always seem to fizzle. He is divorced from Erica (Kim Raver) and they share custody of young Nick (Jake Cherry). When Larry considers moving again, Nick becomes upset; he wants his dad to find a job in the city so that he wonít be bounced around too much. Larry then reluctantly accepts a job at New York Cityís Museum of Natural History. He is hired to be the night watchman, replacing three elderly guards (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs) who have been downsized by snooty curator Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais).
The job seems easy enough until the museum closes and everyone leaves. Suddenly, all the exhibits come to life. The T-Rex skeleton starts running around the hallways. A statue of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) comes to life and starts ogling Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck). Miniature cowboys (led by Owen Wilson) start feuding with gladiators (led by Steve Coogan). Huns invade every part of the place. Woolly mammoths and animals of every possible stripe start stampeding in the lobby. An Easter Island statue begins talking and asking for bubble gum. Larry has to prevent all the exhibits from taking over or, worse, escaping the museum.
Turns out that whatís bringing everything to life is an ancient Egyptian tablet that is housed in one section. Someone Ė I wonít say who Ė steals it for other purposes. Larry has to learn how to manage and utilize all the living exhibits in order to save the museum, while still impressing his son with how serious-minded he is about the new job. The pacing is quite frantic, with lots of chases, slapstick gags, and effects wizardry. The film barely takes a moment to rest from all the mayhem.
The message of Night at the Museum is as admirable as it is obvious: museums bring history to life. No one could argue with that. Unfortunately, the movie itself does not bring history to life. It uses historical figures and events as little more than joke opportunities. I certainly didnít expect to learn anything from watching what is, quite openly, a family comedy. However, the film would have been so much better if it had some sort of perspective on history. About the best it can do is to suggest that cowboys and gladiators were kind of similar Night is definitely hampered by the fact that it has no viewpoint on history or the study of history. Some satirical ideas (or, at the very least, a comic riff on the stereotype that museums are stuffy) would have elevated the movie onto a higher comic plane.
Save for a few clever jokes in the last half hour, including a sly Brokeback Mountain reference, Night isnít very funny. On the other hand, I wonít deny feeling a certain level of amusement. What exactly amused me is hard to say. The movie is filled with promising starts that never go anywhere significant, yet I didnít experience that painful sense of boredom that often accompanies unfunny comedies. Thereís enough going on in Night at the Museum that it held my interest, however tenuously. Perhaps it was the sheer sight of so many great comedians sharing the screen. Maybe it was the elaborate special effects. It might also have been that the premise had just enough juice to keep me from looking at my watch every five minutes. Probably it was a combination of all these things. Regardless, I was more amused than youíd expect for a comedy that rarely made me laugh.
Itís also quite possible that I was grateful to sit down, relax, and see something that didnít require great mental demands of me. Yes, I love a challenging, intelligent film more than words can express. But I also like to just shut everything else out once in a while. When you get right down to it, thatís the whole point of a movie like Night at the Museum - to amiably zone out for two hours. Again, thatís not an insult. The filmís predetermined box office success suggests that a sequel will probably be proposed at some point. If thatís the case, I hope they take the clever premise and add enough inventiveness to make it a really fun way to relax during the holidays, rather than just an adequate way.
( 1/2 out of four)
Night at the Museum is rated PG for mild action, language and brief rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: Night at the Museum
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