It’s not that NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM is a bad film, it’s just that it’s not a particularly inspired one either. Fine special effects, an interesting plot line, and competent direction, those are all there and greatly appreciated. Still, the very best thing about this fantasy aimed squarely at kids is that it reminds us all of how really great Dick Van Dyke is and how much we’ve missed seeing him in something other than a rerun. He’s not the star, that would be Ben Stiller, but he pretty much steals the film every time he’s on screen, with his mischievous affability and infectious sense of fun.
Stiller is Larry, a hopeless dreamer with nothing to show for all his ill-conceived schemes except an empty bank account and, worse, a son, Nick (Jake Cherry), who is now old enough to be not just disappointed in his old man, but worried about him. When Larry’s attorney ex-wife gently but firmly puts her foot down about giving their son some stability, meaning no more shared custody, Larry throws himself on the mercy of an employment agency clerk (Stiller’s mom, Anne Meara) and gets himself a job as the night watchman at the New York Museum of Natural History. It’s a last-ditch effort on employment agency’s part, too, because they’ve sent a slew of applicants over only to have them all rejected. Larry, though, is the perfect candidate according to Cecil (Van Dyke), the senior night watchman who, along with fellow night guards Gus (Mickey Rooney) and Reginald (Bill Cobbs), is retiring. Budget cuts mean that there will only be Larry on duty after they are gone, which will be immediately. After cryptically telling the new guy not to let anything in >or out<, Cecil gives him a quick tour and hands over the list of instructions, with a warning to follow them exactly and in order, whereupon the three of them wish him good luck on his first night, which it also his first day, on the job. It turns out to be a memorable shift, as all the exhibits, from stuffed monkeys, to a wax statue of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), to the fossil skeleton of a T Rex come to life with a cacophony and chaos that nothing could have prepared Larry for. Except maybe actually reading the instructions, cryptic though they sometimes are and which prove only somewhat helpful when consulted after the fact.
The first, throw the bone, brings the T Rex to heel, the second, locking the lions up so they won’t eat you, is more problematical. Hiding the keys so Dexter, the capuchin monkey who may be a bit higher on the evolutionary scale than primatologists acknowledge, is a total loss. It gets worse. Attila the Hun is scourging his way across the second floor, the miniature figures from the Roman and American West displays in the diorama room have declared war on each other and Larry, and the pharaoh screaming to get out of his sarcophagus is only slightly less irritating that the Easter Island head that insists on calling Larry dum-dum.
It’s a great set-up, and there nothing to fault with the advice that Cecil give Larry, and those in the audience by extension, that learning as much as possible about the exhibits will make dealing with the suddenly inter-active exhibits easier, but more fun as well. It’s just that there is no great energy involved in the doings. Stiller is better than usual, showing less of his usual self-indulgent shtick, an interlude of hip-hop performed over the PA system of the closed museum notwithstanding. He does a terrific slow burn when trying to be the voice of reason and ending up being tied up Gulliver-style by the mini-folk and with Dexter’s machinations, among other crises. H also proves a credible low-key foil for the more lively performances of Williams’ bully Roosevelt, Luke Wilson as the overly emotional mini-cowboy at war with coolly snide mini-Roman Steve Coogan, and Ricky Gervais as the supercilious museum director with an inability to finish sentences or lighten up with the museum’s dwindling visitors. His pompous exasperation telling a parent to “control your young” is a snarky delight. One longs for more of all of them rather than the screen time devoted to a clunky nascent romance between Larry and the fetching docent (Carla Gugino in an underwritten role), a self-described history geek who may be having trouble finishing her dissertation, but has none when it comes to wearing a tight skirt or flashing a million-dollar smile.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM has magic of a sort for kids, the flashy effects that have a bronze Columbus strutting trying to discover something, and the blissfully un-schmaltzy story of a father trying to keep his kid’s respect, both work for minds unfettered with having seen this plot arc a gazillion times before. For parents, there’s the comfort of those great supporting performances, and the fond hope that their kids might just be inspired to look up a little something about some of the historical events, people, and things that they’ve seen on screen.