Some films are so bad, story is the first of many things wrong with the final product. In the case of films like Night at the Museum -- which got a lot of things right -- story is what ultimately knocks it down to that level of mediocrity. What starts out as a fantastic concept slowly spirals out of control, leaving it up to marvelous visuals, a myriad of characters and familar faces to pick up the scattered pieces and arrange them in a way so that the damage is contained.
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is an amalgam of several characters we've seen before. A divorced father who can't seem to hold down a job (but holds on to his dreams of being the world's next great inventor), Larry is forced to compete for his son's love alongside his ex-wife's dorky, suit-and-tie, gadget whore of a fiance (Paul Rudd). In order to avoid being evicted from his cozy apartment in Brooklyn -- a tragedy that could force him to move all the way to Queens -- Larry makes it his mission to find a job so that his son will be proud of papa ... and not have to travel to a new home way out in the middle of nowhere, limiting the time the two might get to spend together. But are there any jobs out there willing to hire the man who invented The Snapper (along the lines of The Clapper, only with snapping)?p>
After this tired and cliched premise takes way too long to set itself up, Larry finally manages to land a gig working as the night security guard for New York's Museum of Natural History -- a job he takes from the current three security guards (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs) who insist they're being downsized and must hire one adequate replacement. Sure, there are a host of problems with that scenario but since this appears to be the characters' reality, it becomes ours. With not much training and a dingy, hand-crafted employee manual to guide him, Larry is sent off to his first day on the job. However, the one little detail folks left off the job description was that, once the museum closes down for the night, everything inside it comes to life.
Yes, everything. The cavemen become real cavemen, the miniature Wild West cowboys become real miniature cowboys, the lions, the tigers, the monkeys, the dinosaur skeleton at the front entrance -- even Teddy Roosevelt and his trusty horse -- all magically transform into living, breathing creatures. This, of course, becomes slightly problematic for our poor old security guard. Now, Larry must somehow find a way to keep things under control so that he's not fired by his boss (Mr. McPhee, played by Ricky Gervais, who borrows some shtick from his days at The Office, and subsequently steals Stiller's thunder throughout), and -- worse yet -- lose the respect of his son. When Larry uncovers a thief's get-rich-quick scheme to snatch a bunch of valuable artifacts from the museum, as well as the one piece of gold that brings life to everyone inside, he must find a way to utilize everyone's special talents (including his own) and save the day.
Starting with a children's storybook by Croatian illustrator Milan Trenc, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant were given the task of adding a slew of new characters and creating a longer, more thought-out story to complicate our hero's journey even further. From looking at the final product, it's obvious the screenwriters spent more time on the pic's fantastic world than they did on crafting an engaging plot. The biggest problem here is that the film is completely emotionless -- none of the relationships are believable -- and it's hard to connect with the characters' emotional struggles because the ones that are grounded in reality are poorly set up. At the same time, it's fairly easy to lose yourself in the magic, the special effects and the larger-than-life fantasy -- all of which are a treat to watch play out on screen; a truly remarkable moviegoing experience for any kid and most adults.
With so many characters to develop and not much depth given to each one, it's no surprise most of the performances feel phoned-in, especially from Owen Wilson (who plays a wise-cracking cowboy with a Napoleon complex), Robin Williams (as a terribly mis-cast Teddy Roosevelt) and Dick Van Dyke (as the 81-year-old ex-security guard who's somehow able to pull off a spinning drop kick). Stiller? He was funnier as a straight man back before he took on the same role in so many other films, and at times his lines feel so familiar it's almost as if we're watching a robot programmed to play Ben Stiller.
If kudos are to be given out, it's to the production designer, Claude Paré. Since the filmmakers were not allowed anywhere near the actual Museum of Natural History (save for exterior shots), it was Pare's job to transform a gigantic soundstage in Vancouver into one of New York's greatest landmarks. Yet, except for the museum's large windows and the Ocean Life Hall, everything else was new -- born from the imaginations of the writers and director Shawn Levy who, while a bit manic at times with his shot selection, does manage to contain the madness. It must have been a difficult task, not only controlling all the characters, but making each one memorable enough so that we don't forget their own personal stories. Yes, there are several poorly written subplots woven into the film, but they blend in well and definitely hammer home the message that teamwork counts for everything.
It's pretty safe to say that every child should love this film. And, if Night at the Museum succeeds, it does so by creating that special something that's missing from a number of recent family films -- lots and lots of pure imagination, with an extra helping of the most fun you might have at the theater all year.