Larry (Ben Stiller), a divorced Dad with too many ideas and too little follow through to make any of them work, receives sobering news from his ex-wife, Erika (Kim Raver, TV’s “24”, “The Nine”). Larry needs to get a job and provide a steady home for their son, Nick (Jake Cherry) to visit, he has moved around too much. Desperate, Larry takes a job as the new Night Security Guard at the New York Museum of Natural History. The outgoing guards (Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs and Mickey Rooney) have worked there a long time and are reluctant to go. But Mr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) is trying to save money and wants to replace the three guards who are about to retire with one new guard. Just before they leave, Cecil (Van Dyke) gives Larry a set of instructions and warns him “Don’t let anything in or out”. That evening, every display in the museum comes to life, including the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, dioramas, statues and stuffed animals. Even the statue of Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams) comes to life and offers Larry some assistance, explaining why this is happening. A gold tablet was discovered in Egypt in the 50s and was put on display over the mummy of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek). From that point, the entire museum has come to life every night. Larry has a terrible time keeping things under control and just makes it through the night. The next morning, as he is about to quit, his son stops by for a tour. Larry has to keep the job, for his son. He decides to give it another try and begins to study, in an effort to combat the mayhem.
“Night at the Museum”, directed by Shawn Levy (“Cheaper by the Dozen”, “The Pink Panther” (not two of my favorite films)) is a lot of fun. Filled with a lot of action, great special effects and a lot of good humor for young and old, “Museum” is possibly the best family film of the season.
Levy is not one of my favorite directors. “Cheaper by the Dozen” is a very bad film which is the visual equivalent of hearing someone scrape their fingernails across a chalkboard. “The Pink Panther” remake starring Steve Martin and Beyonce is better, but not by much and saying something is better than “Cheaper by the Dozen” isn’t a great compliment. But in “Museum”, Levy has done a great job of mixing the believable and fantastical, the comical and sweet. “Museum” has some problems, but they are not great and detract little from the overall feeling of the film.
Stiller is actually quite sweet as devoted dad Larry. The only reason he takes the job in the first place is for his son; he would rather work on another invention than to work a night job at the Museum. Then, when all hell breaks loose, he is ready to quit, but stays on because of his son. During the evening, Roosevelt gives him some advice and Larry spends the next day studying all of the various bits of history involved, so he can be better prepared to control the museum. The second night, he returns with a backpack full of help, including a remote control car to drag a bone and keep the T Rex skeleton busy.
Throughout the film, Larry interacts with the various characters who have come to life. Some of these speak English (which is explained by Akmenrah, he was formerly on display at Cambridge where he picked up the language) others don’t, but Larry has to learn to communicate with them, in an effort to control the chaos.
Owen Wilson plays Jedediah and Steve Coogan plays Octavius, two members of dioramas depicting the building of the railroad and the Roman Empire respectively, placed side by side. As each is interested in expansion, they frequently fight, trying to take over the other’s territory. As the film progresses, Larry has to deal with them, becoming a peacemaker, and the three have some funny exchanges, providing a lot of humor. Many of their asides are geared at adults, making the film memorable for this demographic as well.
Robin Williams is also very good as a life-size statue of Theodore Roosevelt. Very subdued (for Williams) and actually a little believable in the role, he imbues the character with a sense of adventure and a sense of purpose, as the real Roosevelt would undoubtedly demonstrate. As the story continues, Larry learns Roosevelt has a thing for Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck), but even though they come alive every evening, Roosevelt is unable to speak with her because her display is behind glass and they can’t hear each other. Larry solves this by breaking the glass, but Roosevelt is too shy and has to be pushed harder. Then, when they finally meet, their relationship blooms and it is sweet to watch.
Dick Van Dyke has the meatiest role he has had in years. I half expected him to provide a quick cameo at the beginning of the film and then disappear. But he, Bill Cobbs and Mickey Rooney prove more prominent characters in the story. They return a few times and help give them film a plot point. At one point, Van Dyke’s character is running through the museum, doing a stunt fall. Even though it is clearly a stuntman doing the work, it is nice to see Van Dyke in such a pivotal role.
Mickey Rooney is also funny as Gus, another member of the trio of old guards. He doesn’t like Larry and hurls constant insults at the young man. Some of these are quite funny and it is nice to see the actor, one of the few remaining actors from Hollywood’s Golden Age, showing he can still mix it up in a film.
Ricky Gervais does a memorable turn as the Museum’s stuffy director. From the moment he chastises an off-screen parent to control their children, you realize you are in for a treat. In further interactions with Larry, he clearly is a man with too many thoughts in his head that he can’t express correctly. His character combines elements of the stuffed shirt administrator with the absent minded professor and this helps to make his dialogue and actions memorable.
Paul Rudd has a brief and memorable role as the ex-wife’s new husband. From the moment he appears on screen, his image elicits laughter.
Carla Gugino plays Rebecca a docent at the museum who befriends Larry. The role is pretty forgettable and could be played by just about any actress. Kim Raver pays her actor’s dues and takes on the thankless and forgettable role of Larry’s ex-wife.
Based on the previews, I expected the Tyrannosaurus Rex to make an appearance in the climax, but it is the first item Larry has to deal with when the Museum comes to life during his first night on the job. This is the first event and really makes a memorable way to kick off the festivities. The dinosaur skeleton doesn’t just come to life, it has an amusing personality all its own.
When this event occurs in the middle of the film, I was a little concerned that everything would go downhill, that they had just spent their creative juices on an early sequence. Miraculously, the film continues to surprise and move on from there. Terracotta statues, jade lions, a bronze sculpture of Christopher Columbus and wax figures of animals continue to come alive and make Larry’s job interesting.
It is a testament to the filmmakers that the action and mayhem continues to build from a Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton coming to life, that this merely sets the tone for the remainder of the film.
The film also sends a sweet message about parenthood. Larry eventually brings his son to the museum, in an effort to impress him. What little kid wouldn’t like to see Christopher Columbus, Attila the Hun and other historical figures come to life? But, naturally, this is also the evening the main plot kicks into gear and they have to work together, along with Roosevelt, Jedediah, Octavius and all of the others to thwart the plot.
What plot? You’ll have to watch it to find out.
Finally, after everything resolves, the Museum becomes a hot destination again and attendance skyrockets. Hopefully, this movie will have the same effect on similar institutions across the country.
“Night at the Museum” blends funny performances, great special effects, grown up humor and a sweet message to become the best family film of the season.