Jean-François Tremblay :
“Don’t let anything in… or out”, Larry Daley is ominously told as he begins his new job as the night watchman at the beginning of “Night at the Museum”. Played by Ben Stiller in a perfect match of performer and project, Larry’s a loosely defined dreamer (he had big plans for snapper lights, but clap-activated ones took away his thunder), a sort of wacky inventor-lite. He’s a striver who wants to become an achiever, looking for a job that’ll raise his profile with his family. His ex-wife Erica (the very attractive Kim Raver) wants Larry to find a job that will bring a more stable environment for their son, who they have joint custody of since the divorce. Erica’s engaged to some hotshot bond trader (Paul Rudd) whom, we’re led to believe, young Nicky sees as a more inspiring choice for a role model.
During his first night on duty, Larry realizes the job entails more than a cursory glance at the exhibits: when night falls at the Museum of Natural History, everybody and everything literally comes to life to cause varying degrees of trouble or go about their business like it’s the most normal thing in the world. Lewis and Clark argue about which way to go alongside Sacagawea, a young Shoshone woman who helped them in their westward journey; the Civil War is being fought; Attila the Hun and his warriors roam the corridors and Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) offers words of guidance. A talking Easter Island head wants bubble gum, the lions in the African pavilion are in a foul mood and the mighty T-Rex wants to play fetch the bone. In the miniature displays, a Roman general and an excitable cowboy with a railroad crew (Steve Coogan and Owen Wilson) are on conflicting paths of expansion.
Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs play the museum’s old night watchmen being replaced by Larry. Their roles are quite secondary (and for me, pretty much laugh-free), but their attempt to steal a rejuvenating Egyptian tablet allows for hilarious visuals involving the figurine-sized Octavius and Jedidiah. As they experience a “hurricane” after they’ve punctured a van’s tire (with Octavius hysterically screaming “Save yourself!”), Levy cuts to great comic effect to a larger shot of the van looking completely still and unaffected. There’s also comic gold (and a vintage Stiller scene) in an escalating slap fight between Larry and a treacherous capuchin monkey named Dexter, and don’t miss the fake belly laugh from the stuffy director (Ricky Gervais) when he orders Larry to get things under control.
There’s a vague threat about the museum’s residents turning to dust if they find themselves outside and are not back in at a certain time. We see that happen once, to a wandering Neanderthal, and the scene is played and shot earnestly. I would have loved to see this restraining premise explored further and more clearly. There’s also no sense that Nick really feels let down by his dad. The early scenes between father and son feature Nicky either saddled with dialogue that sounds way too grown-up for his years or looking just too sad for the situation (the disconnect in their relationship is sketchy and rather blown out of proportion; Larry is no absentee dad and there isn’t any kind of addiction, abuse or neglect that would pose a real threat to anyone’s well-being).
“Night” is directed by Shawn Levy (Just Married, The Pink Panther ’06) from a screen adaptation by Thomas Lennon & Robert Ben Garant, itself based on a children’s book by Croatian author and illustrator Milan Trenc. The story’s setting is certainly a treasure chest of ideas for interaction between the exhibits, and a great opportunity for showing a lot of people and creatures (whenever hell is breaking loose all around Larry, there’s always some jungle animal taking a gentle stroll in the background, undisturbed and unthreatening). By and large, the filmmakers use the museum really well in setting up madcap action scenes. What I also want to point out is that in the middle of that, the film offers a commendable message about developing a thirst for knowledge. On a smaller level this comes into play with Larry hitting the library to know more about the museum’s rowdy population, and it’s shown on more extensively with the gorgeous tour guide (Carla Gugino) who’s writing a book on Sacagawea. The film takes a little while to find its footing, but when it does it emerges as cheerful, upbeat and quite enjoyable.
What a wonderful surprise! I went into the theatre backwards, excepting yet another crappy family flick, with one of my least favorite movie stars to make it worse. But what do you know, not only is this a delightful popcorn movie, Ben Stiller is really good in it. I never found him to be a bad actor, I actually love him when he’s playing a real character as he does here, instead of a one-note caricature (re: “Zoolander”) or a perpetually humiliated/infuriated proxy (re: “Meet the Parents”). Here, he’s instantly endearing as a divorced father who can’t hold a job or even an apartment, which is particularly painful because he can see he’s disappointing his son. Corny? A little bit, but no more than your average ’80s Spielberg, Dante or Zemeckis blockbuster, which is undeniably what Shawn Levy is going for here.
And, I don’t want to gloat, but I totally called this! Just from watching his first two scrappy little comedies (“Big Fat Liar”, with Paul Giamatti and Amanda Bynes, and “Cheaper by the Dozen”), I could sense he had that crowd-pleasing quality and even proclaimed him the “best working director of middlebrow family movies”. Now that he’s been given a canvas as large as his imagination, allowing to create delirious pastiches of historic, fantasy and adventure cinema, he delivers a wildly entertaining ride with a winning old-fashioned spirit, cleverly used special effects and an all-star cast that never misses a beat. Kids will love the animal mayhem and the bickering of Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan, while older moviegoers will savour every line delivery of Ricky Gervais and the rowdy, gloriously non-nostalgic Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs.
I’m telling you, if anyone should have hated this, it’s me, but I had a great time from start to end. This isn’t a masterpiece like “Back to the Future” or “E.T.”, but it would be at home on the same marquee as, say, “Gremlins”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure”.