Monday, April 9, 2012

Of All The Ideas To Get A Sequel...Night At The Museum Makes Me Wonder "Why?!"

The Good: Moments of humor, Decent DVD bonus features
The Bad: Entirely predictable, Premise never develops beyond itself.
The Basics: Predictable and underwhelming, Night At The Museum does not live up to its hype as even an interesting film.

Note: This review was originally written in advance of the sequel’s release. To date, I have not seen the sequel. Enjoy!

Some weeks ago, my wife was in our bedroom laughing constantly as I wrote my daily reviews and I poked my head in to see why. She was watching Night At The Museum and she seemed to be enjoying it. As I prepared for Summer Blockbuster Season, I figured that I would end up seeing the sequel - Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian - but through today, I have not. Still, I figured it was worth catching the original, in case I do manage to get out to see the sequel. Despite my wife and I having a lot of differences in taste, I cannot recall the last time I enjoyed a film so much less than she did than after watching Night At The Museum. Moreover, I find myself baffled as to why this film garnered a sequel when it was so generally weak itself.

Night At The Museum is one of those films where the concept is pretty much all there is to the flick. When one knows that the movie is about a night security guard at a museum where all of the inanimate models of people and animals come to life at night, they have pretty much seen the film. Over the course of three nights, night watchman Larry Daley assumes his position at the Museum Of Natural History in New York City where a pharaoh's enchanted tablet animates all of the displays at night. They get up, walk around, talk and torment one another and Larry. Outside a few moments, the movie was nowhere near as funny as I suspected it would be - from my partner's laughter - and on the merits, it is certainly below average.

Larry Daley is recently-divorced and floundering financially in life even as he sees his ex's new boyfriend getting closer to his son, Nick. Determined to not be forced further away from his son by poor job conditions, Larry takes a job at the Museum Of Natural History as the new nightwatchman, replacing Cecil, Gus and Reginald. There he is given specific instructions to maintain order at night and he arrives for his first night not understanding the urgency with which Cecil warns him to not allow anything in or out of the museum at night. When the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the lobby comes alive, Larry freaks out and begins to stick to the list Cecil left him with, despite failing to keep some of the vital conditions straight.

After a day of research, Larry returns to the Museum where he is more prepared to deal with the animals, Atilla the Hun, miniature cowboys and Romans, and a love-struck Teddy Roosevelt. But the power that allows the displays to animate throughout the museum is coveted by those who used to have Larry's job and Larry must marshal the disparate forces in the museum to save the artifacts and earn his son's love and respect.

On the plus side, Night At The Museum does not insult the viewer's intelligence excessively by drawing out the source of the mysterious happenings. In one of the first moments, the former pharaoh's enchanted plaque is introduced and it is quickly revealed to be the source of all of the animated display pieces. As well, Night At The Museum is cute and has a few moments of humor. Unfortunately, of the three big moments of cuteness or humor, the movie gets two of them out of the way quickly. Larry slapping the monkey and the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton essentially being a cute pet-like creature are established with haste. Outside those two moments, I only recall with any ease one moment that I actually laughed at and that was near the climax of the film. As a result, this is a lot slower than it is funny.

As well, Night At The Museum quickly establishes its premise, but then does little or nothing of real note with it. Everything comes alive at the museum at night . . . all right, once Larry figures out how to deal with the animals and multicultural display pieces, the movie is pretty much over. Thus, writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon are forced to create a rather obvious series of conflicts that are hardly engaging enough to keep the viewer interested. The immediate humor of the situation wears out because no matter who Larry encounters, the jokes are essentially either "maquette becomes animated" or interethnic misunderstanding humor.

The real problem with Night At The Museum comes for anyone who has ever been to the American Museum Of Natural History (reviewed here!). Realism takes a back seat to fantasy from the outset in the fact that almost every display is behind glass at the actual Museum. In other words, outside the dinosaur, Teddy Roosevelt and one or two animals, everything in the Museum would be safely contained, just as the pharaoh in the film is. Moreover, places like the Hall Of Ocean would be loud with the sound of water-based animals dying of suffocation every night when they came alive!

The character and plot arcs are stiflingly predictable as well. On the third night, Larry tries to impress the tourguide, Rebecca, and his son by showing the museum pieces coming to life, so the most predictable reversal - the creatures not animating - is exactly where the film goes. Because there is the conflict between Larry and his ex-wife and a distance from his son Nick, the attempt to bond with Nick is met with plot-convenient reversals that lead Nick to be disappointed in his father only to miraculously have that reversed when Nick rises to the occasion.

This is all stuffed together with a somewhat pointless subplot where the Teddy Roosevelt mannequin has a longing for the Sacajawea mannequin. Larry also has a clear desire to impress Rebecca, but fortunately that subplot is not resolved with the predictable potential kiss that would have been even more obvious than where this movie goes. Given that surprise is a key element to comedy, the lack of surprise in the film once one knows the premise guts the film's rewatchability. Even my partner - who was excited about seeing the movie again because we had been to the Museum Of Natural History - laughed less the second time than she did the first time through.

As for the acting, it is hard to deny that Night At The Museum has a pretty excellent cast. Carla Gugino continues her trend of family-friendly flicks in her bit role as Rebecca and Jake Cherry does an adequate job playing Nick. Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs have wonderful supporting roles as the three nightwatchmen who are prematurely retired and Van Dyke especially rises to the occasion with a decent sense of comic timing. Conversely Ricky Gervais is uncharacteristically stiff as the museum's director, Dr. McPhee. Robin Williams upstages Ben Stiller in every scene they share. Mizuo Peck has great chemistry with Williams when she is finally given a speaking part and they share scenes.

Much of the movie hinges on the performance of Ben Stiller and he is good as Larry. In the role, he is required to run fast, bug out his eyes and act as if he is in danger from obviously virtual characters he is sharing the screen with. He does all of that well and director Shawn Levy seems to have a decent sense of how to use Stiller's sense of physical performance to sell the reality of the situation.

Still, it is not enough to let me recommend the movie; the film is slow and predictable with special effects that are not realistic in far too many places. At least it makes my decision of whether or not I ought to catch the sequel an easy one.

For other films featuring Ben Stiller, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Tower Heist
The Royal Tenenbaums
Keeping The Faith


For other film reviews, please check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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