Night at the Museum (2006) / Comedy-Fantasy

MPAA Rated: PG for some violence, language, and brief crude humor
Running Time: 108 min.

Cast: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan, Jake Cherry, Mizuo Peck, Kim Raver, Patrick Galagher, Rami Malek, Paul Rudd, Anne Meara
Director: Shawn Levy

Screenplay: Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon (based on the book by Milan Trenc)
Review published December 28, 2006

Question: What do you get when you cross Shawn Levy (director of The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen, and Just Married) with the team of Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (screenwriters for Herbie Fully Loaded, The Pacifier, and Taxi)? 

Answer: a sure-fire recipe for mediocrity.

Based on the 1993 children's book by Milan Trenc, the film follows Larry (Stiller, Meet the Fockers), a divorced New Yorker who is desperate for any job that will offer him the stability to have a place for his son Nick (Cherry, Friends with Money) to visit as part of the conditions of his separation.  He lands a job as the night watchman at the local Natural History museum, despite the fact that many of the predecessors have not made it past the first day.  He soon finds out why when the three elderly night watchmen (they are being downsized) give him strange instructions on what to do, which he finds he has to implement to the letter if he is to survive the night alive.  You see, the exhibits of the museum come to life (the dinosaur bones, the miniature cowboys and Roman army, the jungle animals, and Teddy Roosevelt, etc.), causing Larry quite a bit of peril, not only to himself, but also in trying to keep the peace among them.  All's well when dawn cracks, provided no one has come in to the museum -- or gotten out.

Trenc's original book was only 32 pages long, and that's with illustrations.  I'd be surprised if the shooting script were even that length, as it seems, judging from the amount of hamming and ad-libbing in nearly every scene, that there was virtually nothing on the written page for these comedians to do or say before the cameras started to roll film.  I don't even think they have the concept of the film right, as it appears that even the "Natural History Museum" angle was taken beyond natural history to include actual human history, as characters like Teddy Roosevelt (Williams, Man of the Year), Attila the Hun (Gallagher, Sideways), Egyptian princes, and the mighty Roman Empire itself are part of the overall ensemble.  Curiously, some of them speak English and some of them do not, many times regardless of whether or not their real-life counterparts did at the times they were living.

If it sounds like I'm already reading too much into what's supposed to be just a popcorn movie meant just for fun, don't blame me.  The film should have done a better job in the entertainment department to keep me from noticing (or caring) about such glaring inconsistencies in logic or history.  Billed as a comedy, this film is virtually devoid of any fresh laughs, as even proven comedians can do absolutely nothing with such outlandish material.  After groaning at how much the laugh quotient flounders for long durations at a time, when something almost resembling amusing develops, it actually takes you by surprise.  You might even have a tendency to laugh too heartily at even the lamest of jokes -- the culmination of keeping such laughter bottled up inside too long.

Still, it does at least support an interesting premise for a family comedy, although it does come off as a second-rate rekindling of the Jumanji (rampant animal madness) and Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure formulas (a motley ensemble of historical figures coming together to help the people of the present).  There are only two notable plot points in this otherwise anemic film: Larry's attempts to impress his son, as well as a late-developing climax where the three released guards attempt to steal an ancient artifact that rejuvenates them.  Neither one is sufficiently developed to hold out interest in the slightest.

Night at the Museum possesses only special effects and a short-attention span style to keep us entertained, and while that has sometimes proven to be enough for other family-oriented films, it falls quite short of the mark here.  With such a wealth of comedic talent on board, such a dearth of solid laughter is inexcusable, sometimes even becoming painful to watch, as sure-fire off-the-cuff specialists like Owen Wilson (You Me and Dupree, Cars) or Ricky Gervais ("The Office", Valiant) struggle so desperately to improvise funny things to say where none are called for, and to do it so unsuccessfully.  This kind of film is a relic in itself, although, quite unlike the old exhibits found in the film, this one never comes close to actually coming to life.

-- Followed by Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) and Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (2014)

Qwipster's rating

©2006 Vince Leo