Fox // 2006 // 110 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // May 10th, 2007
When the lights go off, it's on.
The theatrical trailer for Night at the Museum left audiences appropriately piqued for what promised to be a high-adventure and effects-laden excursion into family friendly action. The preview reel tantalized audiences with elements reminiscent of Jurassic Park, Toy Story, and, most notably, Jumanji. All the pieces were in place, so what went wrong?
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller, Zoolander) is an idea guy. He knew his breakthrough audible light switch -- the Snapper -- would have hit big if not for that Clapper stealing his thunder. Still, he's convinced his virtual golf game will be huge, just as soon as technology catches up with his vision. In the meantime, he's struggling to stay employed and maintain his apartment in New York City, close to his young son and ex-wife. But it looks as if he's going be relegated to living in Queens, if he can't land this next job -- a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History. During the interview he meets Cecil Fredericks (Dick Van Dyke, Fitzwilly), the current watchman, and his two companions, Gus (Mickey Rooney, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and Reginald (Bill Cobbs, First Kid), who seem strangely eager to turn over the keys and the tattered manual to the unsuspecting newcomer. It seems like it will be a boring graveyard shift gig, until the enormous T-Rex skeleton goes missing, ultimately emerging down a corridor and ready to pursue the wide-eyed Larry. In fact, the entire museum comes alive, literally; all exhibits, from the Huns and diorama miniatures to the Easter Island statue, taking on unexplainable life. He learns from the wise old 'Teddy' Roosevelt figure (Robin Williams, What Dreams May Come) that an ancient Egyptian tablet has given the exhibits life ever since 1952 when it was included in the mummy display. Now, Larry needs to learn the routine of maintaining order in the wild museum without losing his job, his keys, and his mind.
On paper, Night in the Museum has all the makings of a bona-fide hit, the same sort of movie magic that propelled the likes of Spy Kids, The Pagemaster, and Jumanji. But despite the advanced CGI effects and the assemblage of "bankable" talent -- not only Stiller and Williams but also Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan -- this one came up desperately short in the script department. No doubt the film is full of action amid stunning production design, but its all so rushed and ultimately without purpose. Within the first evening of his watch, Larry clearly has his hands full -- and the audience has its eyes full -- with the well-rendered T-Rex skeleton. But, because the story demanded the entire museum population come to life, we're subsequently overwhelmed by an onslaught of CGI characters and costumed actors that are more than Larry (and the audience) can properly absorb. To this end, Larry runs about ignoring the majority of critters and characters, and so do we. Larry's key interactions are between the T-Rex, Roosevelt, Attila the Hun, and the diorama figures, Jedediah (Wilson) and Octavius (Coogan). Subsequent evenings are far too repetitive, until the rather contrived and potentially disappointing face-off against the unlikely villain. In the end, the total is not equal to the sum of its parts and everything comes off as a great deal of activity for far too little a payoff. Simply put, if you saw the trailer, you saw the whole plot.
With the story lagging, Night at the Museum needs to deliver something new and innovative in "blockbuster" entertainment to overcome its narrative deficiencies. Sadly, it doesn't. From the outset, beginning with Dick Van Dyke's wink that something wacky this way comes, this picture follows the typical three-act architecture of a family-action film. With that, it's a highly predictable affair. Even though we don't know the specific details to come, the overall conflicts and resolution are easy to spot. If you've seen more than one of this sort of film (and likely you have), then you won't find much surprising here. Amazingly, the film raked in over $200 million with this uninspired Yuletide gift of "same 'ol, same 'ol."
Twentieth-Century Fox adheres to its exclusive stance by offering this high-definition disc on the Blu-ray format only. To its credit, the studio delivered a technically adept disc beginning with a 1080p / MPEG-2 encoded transfer, framed at 2.35:1. The image is crisp and vibrant; a highly dimensional view from beginning to end. The detail level is striking but bears the visible evidence of edge enhancement. The colors are deep if not a bit overdone at times (thankfully, they never run or smear). Black levels are deep but a bit too much so, resulting in occasional crush of shadow detail. Despite these misgivings, the sort that will certainly irritate the aficionados of the emerging format, the overall picture quality is vibrant and visually pleasing.
The audio is offered in a preferable DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track that performs admirably (even under the current hardware constraints that can only utilize the core of the mix). The soundstage is suitably full yet unspectacular at the outset until the T-Rex skeleton roars to life. The imaging around the channels is excellent and the low-end thumps and rumbles wonderfully. The dialog is perfectly clear throughout the melee and Alan Silvestri's score is quite prominent (perhaps even too much so).
As for extras, this Blu-ray edition cribs only a portion of those bonus features offered on the two-disc Standard Definition DVD, making this an abbreviated tour of the featured museum. The audio commentary from Levy is certainly active and energetic, his solo sitting rarely lapsing into silence. He imparts plenty of information about the production, the ten years it took to bring it to fruition, and the ways in which he worked with the perfectionist Stiller on creating some of the shots. Alternately, you can give a listen to co-scriptwriters Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon talk about the evolution of the script as leveraged and stretched from Milan Terec's 1993 children's book, that which only ran 32 pages. The only other extra ported over from the two-disc SD release is the original theatrical trailer, presented in 1080p / MPEG-2. As an exclusive to this BR incarnation, a Trivia Track is available that provides pop-up information regarding actor trivia, museum trivia, history trivia, and production trivia.
Where has it been written that "family-themed" blockbusters require a divorced couple and their estranged child (or children, however the case may be)? It seems whenever a doofy dad is needed to serve as the butt of the adventurous antics in such a production, its necessary he be a loser divorcee who's high on ideals but low on employability (this easily reminds me of a superior Robins Williams outing, Mrs. Doubtfire). It seems comedy of the new age delights in depicting familial dysfunction to propel its plot. From that very revelation at the opening of this film, it's clear this is just another tired affair, big on budget but low on imagination. Bah, humbug.
In the final analysis, Night at the Museum is full of eye and ear candy, but it's ultimately lacking a compelling flavor. Technically, this Blu-ray disc is one of the better releases on the high-definition format but its sub-par content, with additional consideration that this re-master lacks the complete content of extra features, makes this a difficult purchase recommendation. If you happened to have loved the film when it visited theaters, then you'll certainly be pleased by the improved image and audio. Otherwise, consider a less-expensive rental and use the money saved to take the kids to a real museum. What a concept, huh?
Review content copyright © 2007 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Director's commentary
* Writer's commentary
* Trivia track
* Theatrical trailer
* Official Site