Night at the Museum (2006) – Retrospective Fantasy Film Review

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This is a good example of Hollywood commercial calculation that actually pays off with a few entertainment dividends. You can almost imagine the ecstacy of the studio development meetings: it’s got a high concept (museum exhibits come to life); it’s got family values (it’s about a father trying to earn his son’s respect); it’s got romance (Dad’s divorced, so it’s okay he’s got his eye on the museum’s cute docent); it’s got something for every age demographic (including Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney for older viewers); and on top of all that, it’s got a message (museums are good, and learning about history is cool). It all seems very cold and calculated, the results of lots of careful number-crunching, and yet the film still turns out to be decently entertaining, thanks to lots of great special effects and a few good laughs.
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is a divorced dreamer whose attempts to start his own business have never taken off. Faced with potential eviction, which would mean moving farther away and potentially losing visitation with his son, he opts to take a job as a night watchman at the museum. To his considerable surprise, the museum exhibits – including President Tedd y Roosevelt – come to life at night. At first, Larry wants out, but his son thinks his new job is cool, so he decides to try to get a handle on the situation. Unfortunately, plot complications arise when the previous night-guards (who resent being replaced by Larry in an act of corporate downsizing) attempt to steal the Egyptian plaque whose magical powers are causing all the ruckus.
This is the kind of movie that works on its pleasant predictability. You just know that Larry will rise to the occasion; the years of business failure will melt away as he regains his son’s respect, and no doubt he’ll hook up with the pretty leading lady (Carloa Gugino, as history geek Rebecca). You don’t really want any genuinse suspense here, because that might frighten off timid viewers; the entertainment value is premised on the surmise that everything will work out all right, with at most a little temporary unpleasantness.
What keeps the film alive and kicking is the fact that the premise offers lots of opportunity for the special effects department to strut their stuff, creating some outrageous and original sight gags. The humor is not always as hysterical as intended, but the visuals do please the eye.
Perhaps the highlight of the film is showcased in the coming attractions trailer: the T-Rex skeleton that comes to life. At first resembling a fearsome predator, the reactivated reptile turns out to be more like a playful puppy dog, who only wants to enjoy a game of fetch (using one of his own ribs). It’s a good joke, but it works as more than just a funny concept. The computer-generated animation actually embues the petrified skeleton with some personality (quite a feat when there’s no skin or facial expressions), relying on body language: a lowered head, a wagging tail, a certain enthusiastic in its hips as it bounds after the tossed bone.
As for the rest of the film, it works on pretty much a gag-by-gag basis. Not all of the laughs are as funny as intended, but Stiller does manage to milk lots of comic frustration from his predicament. The odd attempt at pathos (one of the exhibits – a caveman – crumbles to dust when touched by the rays of the sun) seem out of place – a strained attempt to show Larry growing in his sense of responsibility over his new job; and the messages (including “can’t we all just get along?”) border on the trite.
Thankfully, the last-reel robbery stops the feel-good moments long enough to provide a reasonably rousing climax. And as self-congratulatory as it is, the film’s museum-friendly message has a pleasant ring at the end: evidence of the escaped exhibits, including T-REx footprints leading back to the entrance, lures a throng of curious crowds to the previously scarcely attended museum. Too bad no one seems to realize that selling tickets to the nightly resurrection of the dead exhibits would boost attendance through the roof.


The 2007 debut of NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM on DVD consists of four versions: a Widescreen DVD (ASIN: B000NOKJCS), a Full Screen DVD (ASIN: B000NOKJCC), a Blu-Ray Disc (ASIN: B000NOKJBS), and a Two-Disc Special Edition DVD (ASIN: B000NOKJCM).
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006). Directed by Shawn Levy. Screenplay and screen story by Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon, inspired by the book by Milan Trenc. Cast: Ben Stiller, Carla Gugino, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Jake Cherry, Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson.

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