Night at the Museum (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With a cast featuring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, and Ricky Gervais, one has a right to expect something amusing from Night at the Museum. Oddly, not only is the movie unfunny, but it rarely tries for laughs. The only jokes in the production belong to Ben Stiller, and they fail at least as often as they work. Night at the Museum isn't just not funny, it's not fun. There's some impressive computer animation, to be sure, but it's eye candy, and a steady diet of any candy becomes nauseating after a while. Night at the Museum fails to offer much in the way of sustained entertainment unless the stagnant story of a loser Dad redeeming himself in his son's eyes is likely to cause paroxysms of delight.

When he's in desperate need of a job, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) takes the only one available to him: night watchman at New York's Museum of Natural History. It's not something he's interested in, but he needs the money to pay the rent so he can keep seeing his son, Nick (Jake Cherry). Larry doesn't know much about history so, in his first day at the museum, he follows a tour group led by pretty guide Rebecca (Carla Gugino), hoping to pick up a few facts. He is introduced to the unpleasant and uncompromising museum director, Mr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais). Finally, his three predecessors (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs) provide him with an instruction manual and a number to call if things get out of hand. Eventually, Larry is all alone in the museum and strange things start to happen, like skeletons and wax statues coming to life. Soon, he's conversing with Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), getting tied up by a miniature Wild West hotshot (Owen Wilson), and fleeing from Atilla the Hun.

Night at the Museum is put together like a live-action cartoon. At times, it feels like Jumanji (the participation of Robin Williams enhances the sense of déjà vu) and there are some obvious steals from Gulliver's Travels. What's missing, however, is a sense of magic. The experience of walking through a natural history museum during operating hours can be amazing - how much more incredible would it be at night with exhibits coming alive? Yet director Shawn Levy fails to turn this into anything more significant than a playground in which his animators can have fun. Night at the Museum lacks both heart and soul. Levy's previous credits say a lot about his ability as a filmmaker - he was responsible for both the Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther remakes. I believe the act of forcing someone to watch either has been outlawed by the Geneva Convention.

It might be fair to give Ben Stiller an "A" for effort, but to call what he does in this movie "acting" is a misnomer. He does a lot of running around, occasionally falling down or bumping into things. His "romance" with Carla Gugino passes so quickly that if you blink, you'll miss it. (That statement applies to Gugino's character in general - wonder how much of her ended up on the cutting room floor?) Owen Wilson and Robin Williams have just enough screen time to avoid "cameo" status, although the same cannot be said of Ricky Gervais. I have to admit it was nice to see the three old codgers (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs). I'm sure some audience members will be surprised to learn that all three are still alive. (Then again, most viewers will be too young to know who they are.)

Night at the Museum will play a lot better to children than adults. I suppose there's a upside to that. Families can attend the movie together. Kids can watch enraptured as a T-Rex skeleton races around the museum playing fetch and Atilla the Hun gets in touch with his feminine side while Mom and Dad can take a nap. This is the kind of movie where you can sleep through 2/3 of it and never feel like you missed anything, since there's no coherent plot to speak of. Because the film looks impressive, it's worth seeking out on an I-MAX screen. Better yet, don't seek it out at all and look for something with the capability of entertaining a viewer over the age of 10.

Night at the Museum (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2006-12-22
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1