Night at the Museum (2006)
Release Date: December 22nd, 2006 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Shawn Levy Actors: Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Jake Cherry, Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams, Kim Raver
he last decade alone has seen the release of films in which toys, cars, houses, paintings, and dolls come to life. “Night at the Museum,” adapted from the book by Milan Trenc, is the latest such film, the notion of animating inanimate objects now applied to exhibits within New York’s Natural History Museum. This happens, we’re told, because of an ancient Egyptian curse, one that takes effect only at night, after the museum has closed. Because of this, there’s a rule that no exhibit can be let in or out of the building; if any of them escape, they will turn to dust by dawn. All this is learned by the new night guard, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), the hard way in a tense moment where he passes the skeletal T-Rex skeleton display and sees that the skeleton has mysteriously disappeared; when he turns a corner and switches on his flashlight, he sees the skeleton drinking from a water fountain.
In spite of individual moments like these, which are indeed entertaining, the film all too frequently falls victim to severe gaps in logic – and that’s really saying something given a premise that necessitates suspension of disbelief. It also isn’t especially funny, not even for something that was intended to be family oriented. Call me a prude, and God knows I’m not an authority on what is and isn’t funny, but I just don’t see the humor in a monkey urinating on Stiller’s character. Or in Stiller’s character and the monkey repeatedly slapping each other across their faces. Or even in a miniature cowboy drawing out and shooting empty guns, at which point he bemoans his “impotent rage.” Incidentally, given the film’s target audience, what child is likely to get that joke?
When you think about it, there are many things in a museum that would be terrifying were they to actually come to life. Nevertheless, the filmmakers insist on treating everything as a joke, which is definitely part of the problem. Consider the aforementioned scene with the T-Rex skeleton; the potential for a good thrill was ruined the instant it dropped one of its bones at Daley’s feet, wanting to play fetch. Also consider a scene in which Daley has to lock up the African exhibit so as to not be eaten by the lions; we think we’re seeing the setup for an exciting chase scene later on, but alas, the idea wasn’t followed through to the end. And then there are miniature displays of the Roman Empire and the American Old West, each with lead characters, played by Steve Coogan and Owen Wilson, who rather than explore their respective aggressive natures convincingly instead do nothing but bicker like immature siblings.
Problems also arise when you analyze the rules under which the exhibits operate under. Yes, an Egyptian curse brings them to life every night, but that doesn’t mean they would somehow have their heads implanted with the memories and beliefs of the historical figures they were sculpted, cast, or molded to represent. Tell that to the filmmakers; they give us not one but two wax figures – one representing Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams), the other Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck) – who seem to know everything about the achievements of their real-life counterparts, despite the fact that they have long since passed on. Daley even thinks he can get the Sacajawea sculpture to help out a fellow docent named Rebecca (Carla Gugino), who’s writing a 900-page dissertation on the real Sacajawea and has several historical questions to ask.
Attempts are made at human drama, most notably with the relationship between Daley, his ex-wife (Kim Raver), and their son, Nick (Jake Cherry), which is strained because Daley is a good-hearted but aimless drifter that focuses more attention on get-rich-quick schemes and failed business ventures. At least, that’s what we’re told. But we’re not actually shown this, and that only makes investing in the story that much more difficult. It doesn’t help that Cherry noticeably lacks the ability to believably convey Nick’s emotional state, especially when he seriously asks of Stiller’s character, “What if you’re just a guy who needs to get a job?” Perhaps it would have been better to avoid the human drama altogether, since the film is really a vehicle for a fantastical premise, a litany of jokes, and scenes of extensive special effects – which are admittedly a decent sight to behold.
The film errs most egregiously with the characters of Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Reginald (Bill Cobbs), and Gus (Mickey Rooney), the three aging night guards Daley is set to replace. Not only do they add precious little to scenes that establish plot, they also make an unexpected, unnecessary, and wholly nonsensical transition near the end of the film. As far as their personalities are concerned, the worst of the three is Gus, an unpleasant hothead who’s never too busy to belittle Daley with degrading names like “hot dog,” “wisecracker,” “lunch box,” and “weirdy,” among several others. There’s nothing to be gained from characterization like this, apart from generating cheap laughs. Indeed, in spite of the underlying story idea, there’s nothing to be gained by seeing “Night at the Museum.” It’s greatest accomplishment is making an argument for why museum exhibits should remain inanimate.
– Chris Pandolfi