Larry (Ben Stiller) is a slacker divorced dad faced with a future without his son if his doesn't get his act together. Accepting a job as an overnight security guard at the Museum of Natural History, Larry finds the retiring guards (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs) to be a little too tight-lipped about the requirements of the position. On his first night, Larry learns the horrifying truth: the whole museum comes to life when the sun goes down, leaving Larry alone to outwit Huns, miniature cowboys and Romans, cavemen, bronze statues, and a T-Rex while locked inside the building.
There's a lot to love about "Night at the Museum," and one thing to loathe: director Shawn Levy. The premise (based on a children's book) is ample fodder for a special effects extravaganza that racks up enormous thrills and chills, chased by a spoonful of tart and goofy Ben Stiller comedy. It's a crying shame the picture refuses a full court press when it holds the rare golden ticket to an enchanting fantasy/comedy romp.
Levy has made some embarrassingly bad films over his career ("Cheaper by the Dozen," "Pink Panther," "Big Fat Liar"), but that doesn't bother me as much as his insistence that everything he makes appeal to every possible audience member out there who can scrounge up the ticket price. His homogenized, company man attitude behind the camera strikes again in "Museum."
When I imagine this plot, I picture a night of mischief, mania, and perhaps a healthy dollop of slapstick as Larry has to confront history and numerous beasts over the longest night of his life. However, what "Museum" actually turns out to be is a low-wattage family film overcrowded with messages on believing in yourself and being a good dad, while trying to fit in some laughs when the time allows. If the bored shuffling of feet and whispers of "when can we go home?" in a packed movie theater tell me anything, it's that "Museum" would've been better off with somebody behind the camera who had the spark of personality to whip this comedy into fighting shape.
Ask your own kid what would they rather watch: Larry playing fetch with a T-Rex, or Larry getting a lecture from Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) about not giving up on his responsibilities? Since they see the latter message in every single Pixar, Disney, and Dreamworks family film, I think the former is going to be the popular choice. Under Levy's watch, "Museum" is an erratic time-waster that lives up to the filmmaker's streak of movies that drown in their own lethargy and fear of individuality.
When "Museum" spends time with the stars of the exhibits, the mood of the picture picks up considerably. Brought to life with lively special effects, the Museum's overnight party is the place to be. Encountering a diorama cowboy (Owen Wilson) who despises his Roman neighbor (Steve Coogan), a mischievous monkey who can't keep his mitts off the security keys, and a statue of Sacagawea who has trouble finding her way out of her glass case, Larry has his hands full during his shift. And that's not including the lions, Woolly Mammoths, and faceless Civil War mannequins that he dodges to stay alive.
There's so much potential brewing in "Museum;" so much of Larry's job to play with and create special cocktails of adventure and comedy. As much as Levy lets down the material, Stiller doesn't seem to have his heart in this either. Perhaps too constricted by the expectations of the PG rating or feeling the drowsy effects of Levy's NyQuil direction, Stiller restrains himself thoroughly, leaving the potential for gut-busters to fall through his fingers with disturbing regularity.
"Night at the Museum" certainly has its heart in the right spot ending with an affectionate reminder on just how thrilling museums can be to the imagination. Had the film selected this morale to beat the audience over the head with for 100 minutes, perhaps the end product would've been far more tolerable. Sadly, this is a misfire; however, unlike many motion pictures that swing and miss, this feature appears as though it almost preferred to fail, out of a groundless fear of audience-polarizing greatness.
For further online adventure, please visit brianorndorf.com