Appellate Judge James A. Stewart will never trust a capuchin monkey again after seeing this movie.
Our review of Night At The Museum (Blu-Ray), published May 10th, 2007, is also available.
"I'm dealing with the most ridiculous job in history!"
Usually when you think about museums, you don't think about huns and cavemen wandering around at night. Thoughts about huns and cavemen wandering around usually pop up in relation to credit card and insurance company commercials.
However, Milan Trenc thought about what might be wandering around in a museum at night. The cartoonist/illustrator wrote and drew his thoughts in The Night At The Museum, the children's book which turned into Night At The Museum, thanks to a magic Egyptian tablet and a $110 million budget. You'll see the big budget on screen, with a myriad of tiny details brought to life with thoughtful whimsy. Just to make sure you don't wait for an IMAX showing somewhere for this visual spectacle, Fox has come out with Night At The Museum: Two-Disc Special Edition, full of extras and commentaries.
Facts of the Case
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller, Madagascar) is having a bad day: he's done battle with the boot placed on his car for unpaid tickets; he missed his son Nicky's career day at school; and ex-wife Erica (Kim Raver, Sesame Street) really doesn't think Nicky should stay with Larry until he deals with his upcoming eviction. So Larry, whose business ventures keep turning to dust, needs a job, any job. Fast.
"Mr. Daley, I can honestly say in forty-three years, I have never seen a resume quite like yours," the lady at the job agency (Anne Meara, Ben Stiller's mom) tells him.
"All right!" Larry answers.
"That wasn't a compliment," she clarifies.
She can find one job for him, though. Cecil Fredericks (Dick Van Dyke, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) is hiring the guy who will replace himself and his two buddies Gus (Mickey Rooney, The Black Stallion) and Reginald (Bill Cobbs, Air Bud) in guarding the Museum of Natural History at night.
Despite some little signs that the job isn't so good (like Cecil talking to a stuffed monkey he calls Dexter, and Cecil's final instruction "The most important thing of all to remember: Don't let anything in or out") Larry takes the job, even if it seems a bit weird.
Let's clarify that last part. It's a bit weird when Larry discovers Teddy Roosevelt missing from his prominent position in an exhibit. It's a lot weird when Larry sees a tyrannosaurus skeleton drinking from the water fountain. After being chased by the skeletal Rexy, Larry decides to call Cecil for advice. "Read the instructions. It explains everything," Cecil tells him before heading back to his retirement party. Sure enough, there's an instruction for how to deal with a mobile, angry T-Rex skeleton, and many more chores to take care of each night. All of these chores leap off the weird charts.
While most of us would quit at this point, Larry would rather face a T-Rex skeleton or hungry lions than let his son know he's given up on a job after one night. So he takes the time to learn the secrets of the museum, where the exhibits come to life each night thanks to a magic Egyptian tablet.
It's quite a big duty, as Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams, Happy Feet) tells him. Still, Larry thinks he's got the hang of it. So much so that by the third night, he decides to bring Nicky to work to show him all the nocturnal activity. He also invites pretty tour guide Rebecca (Carla Gugino, Spy Kids) to visit him on night shift, although she thinks Larry's kidding around. Naturally, this is the Night At The Museum in which everything goes wrong.
If you're looking for logic, you won't be headed for this Museum of Natural History. The plot leaves a lot of unanswered questions: How come no one except the night watchmen has figured out that the museum comes alive at night? Why did anal Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais, The Office) entrust the hiring of a replacement to the guys he was firing? Why does McPhee get bent out of shape over a tiny misplaced figure in a diorama when there are smashed desks and other grander signs of destruction all over the place? Why would a caring father like Larry risk taking his kid to the museum to become dinner for lions? Why do wax figures come to life, since they weren't alive in the first place? Are they imbued with the spirits of the historical figures they represent or are they their own wax dummies?
The people who put the movie together acknowledge the reality gaps in Night At The Museum in their commentaries: the writers spend a lot of time discussing why most of the wax figures speak and understand English, and the director notes with astonishment that he got away with a scene that really didn't make sense.
Even with the logic leaps, it's not hard to get into the surreal world of Night At The Museum. Most of the film is a setup for a fantastic action sequence at the end as the wax figures, diorama miniatures, and skeletons pitch together to save the day. But it's fun to watch the bickering between the cowboys and centurions, the T-Rex playing fetch, and Teddy Roosevelt making eyes at Sakagawea as the movie goes through the "pay attention, you'll be quizzed later" scenes that set up that action sequence. I thought the ending—which doesn't tell you exactly how a couple of things turned out, but leaves broad hints—was a little too careless, but the audiences who helped the movie bring in almost $250 million at the U.S. box office certainly didn't mind. Do stick around through the credits to see one plot point addressed, though.
Ben Stiller delivers the jokey performance you'd expect here. Not everything works. An early scene in which he riffs on the PA system in the museum he believes is empty didn't do much for me. But Stiller's technique of throwing in as many riffs as possible so something sticks produces some gems. The scene in which he takes aside the bickering cowpoke (Owen Wilson, Shanghai Noon) and centurion leader (Steve Coogan) and lectures them like an angry parent (and the one in which he plays Dr. Phil to Attila the Hun) tickled my fancy. Ultimately, through all the riffing, Stiller makes a believable concerned parent both to his character's son and to the many denizens of the museum.
The trio of Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs as the displaced guards who turn up throughout the film will help you overlook the logic leaps, too. The older actors bring an unexpected liveliness and joyfulness to their roles that brightens the picture considerably, and it doesn't hurt that Van Dyke would have been the lead in a movie like this 30 or 40 years ago. Among the large cast of museum denizens, Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as the feuding diorama miniatures stand tallest, and Everybody Loves Raymond co-star Brad Garrett's voicing of the Easter Island statue was hilarious, especially late in the film when he calls a meeting to order. As Teddy Roosevelt, Robin Williams handles the inevitable key character moment ("I'm made of wax, Larry. What are you made of?") with just enough gravitas for the absurd situation.
The jokes fly fast enough that it's easy to forget the CGI effects, but the animation work was seamless enough to pull it off. The many creatures and people walking around the museum seem like a natural part of the movie's world and will occasionally bring a throwaway smile to your face.
I was pleasantly surprised by director Shawn Levy's commentary, which goes into detail about the process of doing a CGI-heavy movie with a cast of riffing comedians who are giving him plenty of feedback and input. The writers are mostly just making wisecracks, but they have a few good ones; it might have been nice to tell us more about how you adapt a children's book into an all-ages motion picture, though. I will point out that my screener copy had glitches in the commentaries. My DVD froze up so I had to skip forward, then go back to a point just past the freeze.
Other extras are plentiful. Deleted scenes show how the movie was streamlined along the way and how Shawn Levy managed to sneak his favorite discarded bits back in with faster pacing. Levy has a substantial chat with recent film school grads in "Fox Movie Channel Presents Life After Film School." If you were wondering what Levy looks like playing T-Rex, a capuchin monkey, and other animals off-camera, there's a brief scene of him in "Bringing the Museum to Life" and a montage of him in "Directing 101." For the scoop on the T-Rex himself, see "Fox Movie Channel Presents Making a Scene." Overall, the featurettes are mostly short and focus more on the comedy aspects of the movie than the CGI techniques. I'll have to point out what Dick Van Dyke recalls in a brief interview bit: They were doing this animation stuff on Mary Poppins; it's just gotten a lot more convincing. I'd stay away from the Comedy Cental Reel Comedy episode; it's a complete waste of 21 minutes. All told, though, there are more than two hours of short stuff here, on top of the two commentaries.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My review copy was a screener, so the problem with the commentaries I mentioned may have been fixed.
Although there's nothing really scary in this movie, there are a few mild profanities.
With a movie that concentrates on details, this one might be losing something on the small screen, but there's still enough here to make it worth a look. Something tells me it shouldn't have worked, but excellent casting and special effects keep your attention and draw it away from the shortcomings.
You may be tired of those two scenes in the ads with the T-Rex and the monkey, but there's more to this movie than that. If it makes a difference, odds are heavily against any significant double-dips later, since there's not much they could add to this one.
I'd avoid it if considering a job in night security, but otherwise not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Shawn Levy
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