It’s something that everyone who loves the American Museum of Natural History in New York surely has fantasized about: Wouldn’t it be cool if all this neat stuff came to life? There are so many amazing things there from all over the world and throughout time — it’s one of my two favorite museums on the planet — that it would be a fantastic adventure for any history geek… or anthropology geek… or dinosaur geek… or any kind of science geek.
“Yeah, it’s cool,” Ben Stiller’s new night guard says to another museum worker who’s not in on the secret but concedes that it would be pretty neat. “It’s freakin’ awesome!” And it is. This is one of the most inspired concepts for a movie ever — it comes from a children’s book by Milan Trenc — one made for the magic of realistic CGI, one that is thrilling to contemplate and that, at moments during the actual execution, is thrilling to watch. So why o why did the filmmakers saddle it with such a pedestrian context?
The answer is because all they know is idiocy. Director Shawn Levy is a purveyor of inadvertent cinematic horrors like The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen 2 and what is perhaps the godawfulest “romantic” “comedy” ever produced, Just Married. The screenwriters, Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, actually dare to claim credit for the Queen Latifah nightmare Taxi and the Vin Diesel atrocity The Pacifier. What else could they possibly do but slap together some half-assed sitcom garbage about a divorced dad who wants to impress his son and convince his ex-wife that he’s a responsible father by taking what he, an unconventional dreamer, thinks will be a ticket to boring wage slavery? And why else would he keep it, when things go awry on his first night, except because there’s a tow-headed tyke to be considered? The possibilities for building an intriguing and original story around this concept — the Museum of freakin’ Natural History comes alive every night! — are endless, and they chose this. That is downright criminal.
Worse is that they also, in their utter lack of genuine imagination, fail to see the museum for what it really is. The real AMNH is not a dead place that no one visits, as it is portrayed here — it is alive, pun intended, every day with thousands of visitors, tourists and locals and visiting schoolchildren alike. It does not need the accidental PR the film finishes off with to draw crowds, as if everyone had forgotten how freakin’ awesome the place is. That lack of appreciation for what the museum truly means to so many people is part of why Night at the Museum ultimately disappoints. If they had understood from the get-go the real power of the museum, they might have been able to authentically capture that.
Or maybe it’s just that they’re all talentless hacks.
There are moments of sheer geeky fun, if not enough of them. The unexpected personality of the rampaging T. rex skeleton is a delicious surprise. The scene in which modern psychology is applied to Attila the Hun is pretty clever. All the bits featuring Owen Wilson (You, Me and Dupree, Cars) as a tiny Western dude and Steve Coogan (I’m Alan Partridge, Happy Endings) as a tiny Roman soldier, neighbors in adjoining dioramas, are hilarious, because the two of them are always hilarious. (And what happens with their respective “armies,” when brought into proximity, is a completely accurate rendition of what happens when any two toy-size armies are brought together: they wallop each other. At least in the imagination of bloodthirsty children.)
But those moments give way too often to just plain dumbness: Stiller (Tenacious D in: The Pick of Destiny, School for Scoundrels) getting conked in the head, as he seems to be making a career of, and slapped by a monkey; Mickey Rooney (Babe: Pig in the City) embarrassing himself as a would-be foul-mouthed old coot, one of the former night guards. Cut out all the idiocies, and all the painful divorced-dad stuff, and the film would be down to a fighting trim of 90 minutes (at 110, it’s too long for the slightness of its story). It still wouldn’t be the kind of Night at the Museum true lovers of the AMNH would wish for, but it’d be a lot closer than it is now.