Night at the Museum

Rating:

It’s Alive!

Main Cast: Ben Stiller, Dick Van Dyke, Robin Wiliams

Director: Shawn Levy

Night at the Museum opens with sad sack Larry (Ben Stiller) about to need to relocate. Again. It seems that Larry has some difficulty……. maintaining a stable environment, shall we say. Unfortunately, he has a son who would benefit greatly from his dad getting and keeping a real job, so off heads Larry to the Museum of Natural History, where he will become the new night guard. Unbeknownst to Larry, the old night guards, led by Cecil (Dick Van Dyke) have been holding down a considerably more complicated fort than anyone could have imagined after the sun goes down on the museum. As Larry is about to find out, being night guard is less about peace and quiet and more about war and peace. Anyone out there ever think they saw a museum exhibit twitch, from the corner of their eye? Well, Larry is in for a whole lot more than a twitch.

Night at the Museum is simply a fabulously fun film. The story is simple: man gets unexpected challenge which no one would ever believe at new job which he keeps so as not to disappoint his oft disappointed non-custodial child (wait – was that simple? I think so….), allowing the physical surroundings and the general hijinks to take center stage. And take the stage they do! For once Ben Stiller more or less plays the straight man to the insanity with which he is surrounded. Personally, that is how I prefer Stiller – when he is playing the main comedic role, his characters tend to get old pretty quickly. In Night at the Museum, Larry is the normal one, and a fairly sweet and endearing normal one at that. He loves his son, has a decent relationship with his ex-wife, is freaked out by his new job and wonders if he has what it takes to step up to the plate when the time comes. Stiller plays it all with a great deal of charm and dry wit. His interactions with various and sundry characters throughout the museum are priceless, as he desperately tries to get through each night with everything intact.

Speaking of the various and sundry museum characters, they’re a hoot. Some more than others, but in general, writers Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon and director Shawn Levy do a fabulous job of imagining what these exhibits might do – if they could. Owen Wilson (in an uncredited role) and Steve Coogan are the standouts – you’ll never look at a miniatures exhibit in quite the same way again. Robin Williams steps in as well, as does Ricky Gervais as Larry’s boss. Gervais is a riot; I can’t help but think he had a lot to do with forming his character’s unique style of communication.

Night at the Museum takes full advantage of its setting. The museum is wonderful. I have no idea how faithful it is to its inspiration in New York City, or if any of the scenes are actually set there, but the look and feel of the entire place is delightful. Filled with the innate mystery of any museum, with its lifelike scenes and peeks into the past, there’s also a little twinkle of magic overlaying the entire affair from the moment Larry enters the building.

Special mention for establishing that whimsical yet mysterious tone has to go to the three outgoing night guards. Played by Van Dyke (who at age 81 still cuts a mean rug – stay through the credits to catch it), Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs, these guys are just the right mix of resigned, belligerent, helpful and not entirely forthcoming. Their subplot isn’t the strongest point in the film, but they do get things rolling perfectly at the beginning.

The main thing that makes Night at the Museum such enormously great fun is obviously the visual effects. Because this is primarily a comedy, we don’t expect the effects to meld seamlessly into reality – why would we want that? We want to be amused by these things that can’t really happen – but we get to see them anyway! So sure, it’s obvious when and where the special effects team has been at work, but if you haven’t suspended your disbelief by the time they hit full stride, you never will. This is absolutely a case of “sit back and relax and enjoy the magic of movies”. The interaction of Larry with the effects-laden characters is extremely well done. It’s hard to pull off a sight gag when you can’t see that to which you’ll ultimately be reacting, yet Stiller does so time and again with great aplomb and even greater comic timing.

We loved Night at the Museum – we fully intend to purchase the DVD once it becomes available, something very rare around here. Every member of the family was entertained, nobody was bored, nobody was scared, nobody minded when their mother ate most of their popcorn. The combination of Ben Stiller as straight man Larry with the fantastically fun visual effects and the very funny supporting performances make this a hands-down winner. Five enthusiastic stars.

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