If you’re looking for ways to bring history to life for an uninterested kid, or adult, Night at the Museum is the thing. It’s an enjoyable and family-friendly diversion that turns the spotlight on major figures and time periods in your grade school history book, a sort of animated companion to your next museum visit.
Ben Stiller plays Larry, a perpetually down-on-his-luck guy who needs a stable job so that he can continue to see his son, Nicky (Jake Cherry), who lives with his ex-wife. He is hired as the night watchman at American Museum of Natural History in New York, replacing elderly guards Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Gus (Mickey Rooney), and Reginald (Bill Cobbs). The job’s not as easy as he thinks though, and he barely makes it through the first night.
That’s because the exhibits coming roaring to life – literally in the case of the T. Rex skeleton – when the sun goes down, owing to some spell from an ancient Egyptian tablet. Larry suddenly finds himself playing nanny to the museum’s many permanent residents. Some are manageable, like the Easter Island head (Brad Garrett), who just wants gum, and Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck) of Lewis and Clark fame, who is, in a manner of speaking, banished to a glass-encased reservation. But most of his charges end up running amok; Attila (Patrick Gallagher) and his Huns press forward with their conquests while a Roman general (Steve Coogan) and a Wild West cowboy (Owen Wilson) engage in pitched battles.
It’s a lot of characters to juggle, and the novelty of seeing not just museum pieces but history spring into action makes this movie a pleasurable romp. The attempt to cram in as many historical figures as possible, however, gives the film the same qualities of an overstuffed term paper, heavy on details but thin on substance. Larry’s efforts to be a good father are admirable and a grandfatherly Teddy Roosevelt (played with the right amount of cheek and charm by Robin Williams) provides some poignant advice. His friendship with a docent and doctoral student (Carla Gugino) also softens his character.
Too often though the story’s heart gets lost in the frenzy. There’s more focus on the spirited chase out of the museum walls and into the snowy streets of New York in the final act than there is on carving out a more engaging persona for Larry. He is constantly overshadowed by the noise and spectacle of the piece, which does what it can to keep eyes fixated on moving parts. For all of the movie’s success in resurrecting the past, it can’t seem to inject much life into its main character.
Prod: Shawn Levy, Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan
Dir: Shawn Levy
Writer: Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant
Cast: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Jake Cherry, Ricky Gervais, Kim Raver, Patrick Gallagher, Rami Malek, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Mizuo Peck, Paul Rudd, Anne Meara-Stiller, Brad Garrett
Time: 108 min
Country: United States