“Keep a lid on it, Butterscotch”
While based on a 1993 children’s book by Milan Trenc portraying a museum security guard discovering how he must protect the people outside from the dinosaur skeletons that come to life inside, Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon‘s cinematic adaptation of Night at the Museum bears more of a resemblance to another family friendly fantasy franchise ending its trilogy the same year as theirs began. I’m talking about The Santa Clause, an enjoyable holiday journey of the heart wherein a divorced dad hoping to prove himself to his young son becomes embroiled in a magical world no one would believe unless they saw it for themselves. Ben Stiller‘s Larry Daley is a carbon copy of Tim Allen‘s Scott Calvin as he seeks the confidence and courage to take responsibility and reshape his life for the ones he loves.
The comparisons are endless from the goofy replacements in their ex-wives’ lives (Paul Rudd‘s bond trader and Judge Reinhold‘s doctor respectively) to the implausible friends/associates helping them adjust to their new environments (Robin Williams‘ Teddy Roosevelt and David Krumholtz‘s Bernard the Elf). Besides introducing its love interest (Carla Gugino‘s Rebecca) straight away, the two movies are very hard to differentiate. The surprising thing, however, is that I found myself not caring to try. As a family film there’s often little room to maneuver as far as finding new avenues of storytelling never before utilized in the past and Garant and Lennon are infamous for their box office prowess creating hits based solely on audience appeal. So while Night at the Museum is impossibly redundant, it isn’t necessarily a failure. In fact it’s a lot of fun.
What makes it so are the numerous opportunities a locale like the Museum of Natural History can provide director Shawn Levy to wow us with adventure and loosely educate along the way. Kids watching who may have been bored in class learning about the Huns or presidents or Native Americans are introduced to them here in a totally different way thanks to its ingenious premise. Attila’s (Patrick Gallagher) brutality is rendered exciting in the context of his cat and mouse chase with Larry; Roosevelt is portrayed as a sensitive soul with humor and panache in the field rather than signing bills in the White House; and Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck) becomes an inspiring heroine not only to the bumbling Lewis and Clark trapped with her in their display, but also the intelligent and headstrong Rebecca’s idol.
In other words, Garant and Lennon have rendered history exciting by bringing it to life in the present much like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure did previously and Mr. Peabody & Sherman later on. It puts real life figures in the forefront of our youth’s consciousness and allows for that moment of familiarity when they’re spoken about again in school. Building that connection could mean the world to someone unable to focus or care about ancient tales spewed forth by monotonous teachers no longer able to bring the past to life. Levy and his visual effects team are therefore tasked to do what our educators cannot and adding a bit of humor, pratfalls, and action can only help our desire to discover more. After all, Larry knew nothing about any of the exhibits when he first arrived either.
Stiller is the perfect actor for an everyman thrust into fantasy because he does both skeptical and wide-eyed wonder so well. His Larry is able to have fun with the absurdity of it all—tying a bone to a remote control car so the T-Rex remains occupied playing fetch, tossing a wad of bubblegum into the Easter Island Head (Brad Garrett) to shut it up, and forcing miniature cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and Rome’s Octavius (Steve Coogan) to get along despite each possessing troops ready for battle. Stiller has no trouble playing the fool by throwing his whole body into a gag whose computer-generated behemoth of an adversary is added in post-production or by letting a monkey (Crystal the Monkey‘s Dexter) bite his nose and slap his face. The farce entertains enough for the plot to come later.
While its conflict might be an afterthought, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when the magic stimulates on its own. Everything happening because of an Egyptian tablet hanging above the tomb of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) doesn’t mean we must delve into the how or why—we can merely accept the device and move along. If former night watchmen Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Gus (Mickey Rooney), and Reginald (Bill Cobbs) say nothing can leave the museum because one figure remaining outside at sunrise turns the rest to dust, we take it on faith. So when the tablet is stolen and all these new lives are threatened with extinction (I say new because the filmmakers impressively give the wax figures self-awareness that they aren’t the people they depict), differences are thrown aside for a common goal of survival.
Larry becomes their leader because he too needs the tablet’s wonders to prove his mettle and stop feeling as though he’s letting his son Nick (Jake Cherry) down. He must survive the chaos inside, a stuffy and inarticulate boss (Ricky Gervais‘ Dr. McPhee), and his own self-worth to save his new friends and the very idea of a history museum being a destination worth visiting despite the internet rendering them virtually obsolete. Garant and Lennon’s trademarked humor comes through Rooney’s crassness and Dexter’s juvenility, but it never overshadows the moral of the story or the heartwarming optimism at its core. There’s enough highbrow historical fiction to make parents laugh and lowbrow escapades to delight the young—a combination it does as well as The Santa Clause. It may not a great film, but it does fulfill its goals.