Remember those film critics who rambled on and on about the alleged political overtones of The Incredibles? The ones who interpreted Pixar's brilliant superhero-comedy as some sort of right-wing propaganda? Well, I propose that we not let those critics see Night at the Museum. In the Christmas season's biggest, most-hyped adventure-comedy, Ben Stiller enters a world of chaos and anarchy and brings peace and order to a war-torn region plagued by a long history of cultural and ideological rifts. The comparisons to contemporary world events practically write themselves. (Except maybe the "peace and order" part.)
Thankfully, most people probably won't see it that way. Parents will simply cherish the film as a rare comedy that is simultaneously smart, funny, and, save for a couple of mildly crass moments, almost completely family-friendly, without the smug condescension or nauseatingly hip pop culture references and fart jokes that tend to mar so-called children's movies as of late. Kids—and older movie buffs with a taste for adventure and spirited frivolity—will savor the movie's wit and its high-speed adventure. And anyone who remembers the big-budget action-comedies of the 1980s—gloriously silly movies like Ghostbusters—will wonder what the heck is going on.
Indeed, Night at the Museum is a breed of film that's all too rare these days. Though it draws some comparisons to Pirates of the Caribbean and especially Elf, it's still a noticeable abnormality—a big-budget, live-action concoction of comedy and adventure that makes no pretense of being anything other than a two-hour romp through goofy humor, history-buff in-jokes, kooky physical comedy, and high-speed chase scenes. They just don't make 'em like this anymore.
Stiller stars as Larry Daley, an undisciplined entrepreneur whose brilliant money-making schemes—like a virtual driving range—always fizzle out into wasted potential. Larry's unstable lifestyle is worrisome to his ex-wife (Kim Raver), who wants a better environment for their son, Nick (Jake Cherry), so Larry buckles down and lands a job as a night watchman for a local natural history museum. It's a lame setup—all family-movie clichés and Mrs. Doubtfire-esque broken family drama—but things quickly get better when Nick meets the three outgoing security guards whom he is to replace—a trio of oldtimers played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs. These guys are, of course, old comedy pros, and they're charming and funny enough to deserve their own movie.
Unfortunately, they don't tell poor Larry about everything that goes on in the museum at night. They leave out minor details like, oh, the fact that all of the exhibits come to life at night. Soon, Larry is understandably bewildered to find himself in the middle of a veritable indoor jungle, fighting off a horde of angry Huns, an army of miniature cowboys, Roman soldiers, a mischievous monkey, and a skeletal T-Rex.
You can probably guess what happens next. There are scenes of squeamish, cartoony violence, well-choreographed chases through the museum, and physical comedy that involves Larry and the monkey slapping each other repeatedly in the face. Larry vows never to come back, receives some sage advice from Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams), shares some tender moments with his son and an attractive museum employee (Carla Gugino), comes back after all, learns some lessons, uncovers the ancient mummy curse that has wrought havoc upon the museum, and resolves to save the day. There's even time for a few more yucks with the three old guys along the way. Yes, it's predictable. No, it's not going to be mistaken for high drama. Yes, if you're used to a diet of arthouse cinema and foreign flicks, this stuff is probably beneath you.
Only, the whole thing is very, very funny. The action and adventure consistently work. It's exciting even when you pretty much know what's going to happen. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and it never topples under its own weight. In fact, it's hard to believe that it's directed by Shawn Levy, the man whose dubious credits include Cheaper by the Dozen, The Pink Panther (2006), Big Fat Liar, and a whole bunch of mediocre TV shows. Looks like he's finally getting the hang of things; Museum is explosively fun, and it leaves some room for actual storytelling amidst all the spectacle.
Of course, it's hard to mess things up when you're working with talented actors like these. Ben Stiller's career has been hit-and-miss recently, and this should be the hit he needs; it's his Elf in more ways than one, and, though he's no Will Ferrell, his familiar screen persona serves him well here. Robin Williams is suitably dignified as the charming President Roosevelt (incidentally, this film bears more than a slight resemblance to Williams' hit Jumanji). Steve Coogan is brilliantly absurd as a pint-sized Octavius. Ricky Gervaise is hysterical as the flustered, inarticulate museum director. And Owen Wilson, as an equally miniature cowboy, pretty much sticks to his usual schtick—in fact, he's basically reprising his role from Shanghai Noon—but he gets some of the film's funniest lines, and his laid-back demeanor always makes him a great foil for Stiller's hysteria.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt that they're all working from a script written by Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant, two of the masterminds behind TV's edgy comedy Reno 911!, who thankfully keep things reasonably clean and family-friendly without dipping into schmaltz or treacle. About the only caveats are one use of bad language and a scene of a monkey urinating on Larry's head.
Despite the almost incessant hilarity and inanities, there is a message amid the madness—the film actually has some wise and not-too-preachy things to say about perseverance, vision, dreams and responsibility. Ol' Teddy Roosevelt tells Larry on more than one occasion that not all men are born great—some have greatness thrust upon them. He exhorts Larry to strive for greatness rather than simply sit back and wait for it to find him. He affirms the importance of dreams and also responsibility.
And, of course, the importance of knowing your history. It's when Larry begins reading up the exhibits he's guarding that he begins to really get a handle on his situation, and, while this film in and of itself doesn't teach us too much about dinosaurs or famous explorers, it does an admirable job of making history—and knowledge in general—seem not just vibrant, but truly important. Here's hoping that families who spend a Night at the Museum might also end up spending a day at the museum.Discussion starters
- Do you think Larry undergoes a change by the end of the film? Consider the advice he's given by Theodore Roosevelt, and contrast his actions in the museum with his lifestyle before landing his museum job.
- What might the film tell us about perseverance? About hard work? About responsibility
- The three old security guards exhort Larry to read up on his history. How might learning about history influence us in our lives? How does it influence Larry
- What does the relationship between the cowboys and the Romans suggest about teamwork?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
A Night at the Museum is rated PG for mild action, language, and brief rude humor. The "action" is all comedic, slapstick kinds of stuff, like a T-Rex banging around in the museum or Larry getting into a slapping fight with a monkey. There's nothing bloody here, though one or two scenes might be a little too squeamish or scary for the very young. There are a couple of potty jokes, most notably a scene of a monkey urinating on Larry's head. One swear word is used. There are also a couple of passing comments made about evolution, though they're mostly played for laughs.
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