Directed by: Shawn Levy
Starring: Ben Stiller, Carla Guigino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs
Rated: PG for mild action, language and brief rude humor.
Parental Notes: While some very young kids may find the rampaging T-Rex and other displays too frightening, this should be just fine for most kids.
There was a moment during “Night at the Museum” when the rational part of my brain tried briefly to kick in. Two magically animated miniature figures, a cowboy and a Roman centurion, were driving a small remote control dune buggy as part of a chase involving a mystical tablet and a giant living Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, and my mind informed me that remote control toys like that can’t be driven from the inside. It is a tribute to the magic of children’s movies that the rest of the scene seemed perfectly believable. “Night at the Museum” certainly has its share of inaccuracies and flaws, but for sheer cinematic magic, it’s hard to beat.
The central idea of “Night at the Museum” is that the exhibits at the Natural History Museum in New York come to life at night after all the museum patrons leave. The film’s hero is Larry (Ben Stiller), the new night security guard, who is left to discover his job’s unusual nature by the three retiring guards (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs). Once he gets over his shock, he decides his new job “is freakin’ awesome!” and sets about doing it to the best of his ability.
The filmmakers wisely spend most of the film’s time on Larry’s adventures at work, but there are a few subplots thrown in as well. Larry’s ex-wife is threatening to challenge his joint custody of their son if Larry can’t manage to hold down his job. Larry’s son is on the edge of thinking his dad is a loser. The old night watchmen seem to be up to something. Docent Rebbecca provides a love interest for Larry, but he has trouble impressing her. These are all familiar cliches, and they do not provide enough suspense to distract us from the wonderment of the history literally coming alive on screen.
The special effects used to bring the museum to life are spectacular, and deserve a viewing on the big screen. The animated T-Rex skeleton has a surprising amount of personality, as do the animated wax figures of Lewis and Clark, cave men, and Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher). A bronze statue of a famous Italian explorer (whose identity is best left to the film to reveal) walks and talks with impressive fluidity and realistic weight.
The real gems of the film are Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and the miniature armies from the diorama room. Williams is in fine form, his usual crazy self toned down into a delightful performance as our twenty-sixth president. Two miniature armies from the diorama room are led by the cowboy Jedidiah (Owen Wilson) and centurion Octavius (Steve Coogan). These two men have been itching to fight each other for years, but the old night guards always closed the dioramas off from each other. Wilson and Coogan are phenomenal comedians and do a wonderful job of portraying these two tiny fellows with big personalities.
The real magic of movies like “Night at the Museum” comes from the audience; if you are willing to imagine that something like this could happen, then the movie will likely sweep you up in its enthusiasm. It’s hard to complain about plot holes, lack of realism, and a cliched plot when you’re busy grinning like a madman at this daydream come to life.