What do Christopher Columbus, Teddy Roosevelt, Attila the Hun, Sacagawea, a T-Rex, an Easter Island monolith, a cowboy, an Egyptian mummy, a Roman centurion, a capuchin monkey, and cave men have in common? Before "Night at the Museum," not a blessed thing. But these are the wax, bone, plaster, and plastic objects that come to life in "Night at the Museum," a "Toy Story" or "Jumanji" of sorts from director Shawn Levy.
Kudos to Fox for going PG on this one. Just about every kid has had thoughts, nightmares, or fantasies about what it would be like to be locked overnight inside a public place like a store or museum, and "Night at the Museum" brings it all to vivid life. Though there are bad guys, it's all about as innocuous as "Candleshoe" or any other Disney live-action film with small-time crooks providing small-time tension. While there are a few moments that might frighten the youngest family members, those episodes are quickly resolved. There might be weapons and chases, but everything is played mostly for laughs. And when it comes right down to it, the bad guys aren't that bad.
Ben Stiller handles himself well as the warden of this asylum, even though he plays second banana not just to the monkey, but to every last one of the peculiar inmates. But like Bob Newhart, that master of reaction comedy, Stiller rises to the occasion. One of the most delicious moments comes not opposite one of the museum pieces, but when Stiller reacts to his real-life mother, Anne Meara, in a scene where she plays an employment agency counselor. You see, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is divorced, and this ne'er-do-well has to find a job--any job--in order to be able to continue to see his son, Nick (Jake Cherry). What's worse, Nick now wants to become a bond trader like his new step-dad. What's an average, under-achieving guy to do?
Based on a book by Milan Trenc, "Night at the Museum" plays the weekend Dad card and tries to set us up for an emotional ride that will have us in the same car as Larry. But to tell the truth, everything is presented in such a way that the outcome never seems to be in any doubt. It's "Mrs. Doubtfire" all over again, where you just know that dear old Dad is going to redeem himself at some point, and everything is going to be A.O.K. That lack of real tension and doubt over the outcome is the only thing that keeps "Night at the Museum" from being a classic film. Everything else seems right on the money.
The blend of CGI animation and live-action is seamless, and the three old guards (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs) are as endearing as can be--even more so than the father-son relationship that we suspect is supposed to take the spotlight. Rooney is especially hilarious as the trash-talker of this group of old-timers who are being forced to retire. "Now listen, Lunch Box," he'll say, or some such quasi-abusive variation. The head guard, Cecil (Van Dyke) gives Larry a hand-written rule book on how to get through the night. "The most important thing to remember: Don't let anything in . . . or out," he says.
After the three of them leave, Reginald (Cobbs) asks, "You really think he's the one?" "Oh yes. He's the one," Cecil says. And of course, we wonder why.
Larry isn't exactly the kind of on-the-ball go-getter you associate with being "the one." His first day on the job he falls asleep, and wakes to complete chaos. Diaramas have come to life, Attilla the Hun is on the rampage, and a T-Rex seems intent on recreating a scene from "Jurassic Park." Gradually, though, he gets a handle on things, and that includes figuring out what "throw the bone" means to the T-Rex, breaking up fights between leaders of the cowboys (Owen Wilson) and Romans (Steve Coogan), or trying to broker a love match between Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and the Indian guide he's admired from afar (Mizuo Peck).
Of course there's a female involved, and Rebecca (Carla Gugino) is a Ph.D. candidate who's doing her dissertation on Sacagawea. I don't know how serious she is, if she's ready to give up because "how can you really tell who this person is," but when you can ask your research subject questions point-blank, it's a pretty nifty advantage--if, that is, you believe this lunatic new night watchman.
With "Gremlins," it was don't get them wet. Here, a tablet of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) is responsible for activating all of the exhibits from dark to dawn, and anything that remains outside after sunup is promptly turned to dust. So the challenge for Larry is to minimize the damage that these raucous little historical people create so Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) doesn't fire him, and to figure out a way to get his son to see the creatures come to life so he can have a little more respect for Dad.
It's a cute film, and one which has the ability to appeal to the entire family--no small feat these days. But the plot is pretty basic, and there are also a couple of inconsistencies. Teddy knows he's just a manikin made in a factory, but the rest think they're the real deal. Pacing also seems a little facile at times, with a crisis situation too quickly and easily resolved. Another time, as crooks who've entered the museum seem to be grabbing things and getting away, we get a leisurely scene between Larry and Ahkmenrah that all but diffuses any tension that was set up by the break-in. Curious direction here, to say the least. But "Night at the Museum" is still solid family entertainment.
Except for some pulsing around the edges of some objects--especially harsh-angled ones, like a Mayan pyramid-the picture is pretty clear, with good contrast and black levels and decent color saturation. Though the film is ostensibly shot at night, the interior lighting is actually pretty bright most of the time, and that lends itself well to rich-looking colors. The level of detail isn't so amazing that you'd want to pop this one in the player to amaze your friends, but it's still pretty solid. "Night at the Museum" was transferred to a single-layer 25GB disc using MPEG-2 technology at 19MBPS, presented in 2.35:1 widescreen.
The audio, as is often the case with Blu-ray, is even stronger, with a DTS HD 5.1 master lossless audio generally rich and resonant, with a wide spread across the front speakers and plenty of rear-speaker ambient sound. Additional audio options are a Spanish and English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, which doesn't have quite the same spread or the same rich tone. Subtitles are in English (CC) and Spanish.
Twenty-five GB pretty much says it all. You know you're going to get short-changed on the extras when you see a single-layer disc, and that's exactly what happens. Missing are all sorts of bonus features from the DVD edition. Here, the only real features are two commentary tracks--one by director Levy, and the other by writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. As if to atone for skimping on the extras, there's a trivia track that's exclusive to the HD release, broken down into color-coded categories: Actor trivia, History trivia, Museum trivia, and Production trivia. It's a nice idea, but I, for one, forgot the code pretty quickly. No matter. It's one of the better pop-up trivia tracks. So many of them have random facts that seem like quite a stretch. Here, most of the entries seem useful and worthwhile.
Of the commentaries, Levy's is the best. The writers gag it up a bit too much. From the moment they say "the lines are open" like it's a call-in, you know these guys have decided to play it funny--or as funny as they're able. Levy, meanwhile, channels his zeppelin-sized enthusiasm in all sorts of ways, going off on anecdotal side trips, giving us technical and location information, and proving every bit that this was really his 10-year labor of love.
"Night at the Museum" is no "Night at the Opera," but there are certainly funny moments. There are also adventurous moments and poignant ones in this family film, with Stiller managing to be funny, somehow, even while playing the straight man. But the biggest plus is that PG rating. Levy proves that you can be funny and wholesome, all at the same time.