NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM
What's not to like about Night at the Museum, a fun-filled, action-packed, uplifting film, entertaining for the entire family? That's an old-fashioned endorsement, but this is an old-fashioned movie, notwithstanding its digital wizardry, a matinee romp with winsome characters who provide good role models and moral guidance. The script is clever, the cast endearing, the special effects beguiling. The humor, for a change, is affable and affirming. Best of all, the movie doesn't take itself seriously, one reason it's able to convey its gentle catechism without seeming preachy.
Director Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen), working for the first time with big-budget CGI, doesn't let the pixels upstage the people, no mean feat in a flick featuring a frisky tyrannosaurus romping about New York City's stately Natural History Museum. Wooly mammoths, Egyptian colossi and 10-ton Easter Island moai come to life, but the creatures have nothing on Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs, perdurable troupers who turn up as a trio of nefarious night guards. The museum's famous dioramas, trapped out with miniature Mayan warriors, Roman soldiers and American cowboys, awaken to fulfill their manifest destinies (in the words of Jebediah, a wild westerner played by Owen Wilson in an uncredited role), or more accurately, to tussle with one another across the museum's polished floors and benches. Yet we're as readily engaged by the shy courtship between two wax figures: Teddy Roosevelt, benefactor of the museum, played with aplomb by Robin Williams; and Sacajawea, guide and interpreter for explorers Lewis and Clark, charmingly invoked by Mizuo Peck.
Even the narrative of Night at the Museum unfolds like the monster movies of yore, delaying the appearance of the beasts we know are waiting in the wings while screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Herbie: Fully Loaded, The Pacifier, Taxi) leisurely establish character and a sense of place. To be more succinct here, recently divorced Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), a dreamer who can't get his get-rich schemes off the drawing board, needs a steady job to ensure weekend visits with his son, Nick (Jake Cherry). He lands one as the new night watchman at the museum following an eccentric interview with Cecil (Van Dyke) and the boys, who appear all too eager to hand over the keys. Larry soon discovers why. His job isn't to keep intruders out of the building, but prevent the inexplicably quickened exhibits, including a tribe of hirsute Neanderthals, from escaping into Central Park, a task complicated by an ornery Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) and other improbable personages.
The concept, so high it's perfectly summarized by the movie's title, would seem a VFX artist's dream, and Jim Rygiel (Lord of the Rings), working with visual-effects house Rhythm & Hues (The Chronicles of Narnia), delivers the digital goods. Night at the Museum draws upon a smorgasbord of CGI styles suitable for charging lions as well as armies of fighting figurines, with Stiller getting tossed about by the skeletal T-Rex, lassoed and tied like Gulliver, and stooge-slapped by Dexter, a mischievous capuchin monkey who steals every scene he's in (or rather, she...Dexter is played by Crystal of Birds & Animals Unlimited).
Stiller takes his punishment stoically--as Jiminy Glick would put it, he's the perfect everyman because he's perfectly bland--but he, Wilson and Steve Coogan as Octavius the Roman commander seem to genuinely enjoy their screen time together. Carla Gugino makes a sweet docent (kids learn vocabulary as well as history watching this film) and Rami Malek a rather posh mummy. Ricky Gervais as Dr. McPhee the museum director is asked to reprise his "Office" role, a part he's destined to play for the rest of his life; he adds a new wrinkle by making this stuffed shirt spectacularly inarticulate, although he doesn't seem to be satirizing anyone in particular.
In fact, Night at the Museum is refreshingly free of cynical digs and mean-spirited insults, opting instead to accent the positive. The filmmakers don't try to make history hysterical; they simply suggest that studying the past can be pleasurable and profitable. Meanwhile, they dramatize valuable living skills, such as talking through differences to solve problems, with panache and pacing that would wow Mr. Rogers. This movie has a message everyone can get behind, the best gift Hollywood could give for the holidays.
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