As with Monster House, Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum boasts a distinctly ’80s spirit, its story attempting to tap into the sense of extraordinary childhood wonder that typified Steven Spielberg’s small-screen Amazing Stories. That it never quite pulls off that tricky feat has something to do with Levy’s flavorless direction, but more to do with its decision to feature a protagonist who’s an adult rather than a kid. The tale of a hapless father named Larry (Ben Stiller) who gets a night watchman post at Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History only to discover that everything in the building comes to life at night, the film (adapted from Milan Trenc’s children’s book by Reno 911! stars Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) hinges on an exhilarating, frightening, and distinctly youthful fantasy. Consequently, what this central conceit would have benefited from is a juvenile hero through whom its intended (preteen) audience might find a proxy for their own astonishment and fear over stampeding T-Rex skeletons, ferociously animated stuffed lions, and rampaging Attila the Hun wax sculptures. Instead, however, it’s Stiller who’s left to stare incredulously at the supernatural goings-on, and his bewilderment, though mildly engaging, never feels comparable to the sort of mind-boggling, preconception-shattering awe that a kid might experience in the same situation. Though he’s often upstaged by his scene-stealing co-stars—including a toned-down Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, Dick Van Dyke as the establishment’s former security guard, Ricky Gervais as Stiller’s sentence-challenged boss, and Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as rival cowboy and Roman general diorama figurines, respectively—Stiller’s flustered routine occasionally reaps amusing rewards, such as during an immature back-and-forth slap fight with a thieving monkey named Dexter. Yet even when amiably funny and thrilling, Night at the Museum fails to hit a completely comfortable stride, its intro too prolonged, its finale too rushed, and almost every character and interpersonal dilemma—between Larry and his son, Larry and his love interest (Carla Gugino), and Roosevelt and Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck)—drawn with cursory brushstrokes and overwhelmed by a raft of (impressive) CG effects. None of which, as a recent adolescents-packed screening attested, ultimately prove livelier than Mickey Rooney as an unhappily retiring guard prone to derogatorily calling Larry “Butterscotch.”
- Shawn Levy
- Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon
- Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Kim Raver, Mizuo Peck, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Robin Williams
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