If you’ve ever wondered why cheery, family movies like Night at the Museum often get mixed reviews from critics, take a look in my closet at the big stack of Oscar screeners I received this year. It’s a leaning tower of holocausts, ethnic cleansing, adultery, assassination, misery, suffering, boredom, and angst. These are the kinds of movies I’m supposed to give good reviews to, these are the kinds of movies that studios believe critics might cozy up to. And most of the time they’re right. Once in awhile a Lord of the Rings busts through, or a complete, undeniably great movie like The Incredibles manages to win critics over; but lighter, purely fun family movies like Night at the Museum get a resounding “ho-hum” from the crotchety old press. Much of the time they deserve it (hello Eragon), but sometimes it seems as if critics only feel like they’re seeing something good when they’re being depressed. Me? I want to see a prehistoric man shoot Ben Stiller in the face with a fire extinguisher. Why the hell not?
Night at the Museum is a wonderful throwback to a time when you could walk into the theater and watch Abbot and Costello meet Frankenstein. Or those lost summers when you’d pile the kids in a station wagon and take them to a drive-in to watch Don Knotts scare himself to death in The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. There’s a great moment at the beginning of the movie, which you may have seen most of in the trailers, where Stiller first realizes what’s happening as he creeps around the corner and spots a Dinosaur skeleton drinking out of a water fountain. The scene almost seems tailor made for Knotts. If you squint your eyes a little bit you can just see him, tiptoeing around the corner in his floppy hat and salt n’ pepper suit, the flashlight shaking in his hands as he peers into the darkness. Stiller plays it differently of course, he’s not fragile like Knotts and could never pull off the same performance, but it’s the kind of story that 30 years ago you could have easily plugged the shakiest gun in the west into.
The premise alone ought to be enough to sell you on it. Ben Stiller plays a night watchman at a museum who, during his first night on the job, discovers that everything in the place comes to life every night after dark. As if in an homage to the sorts of old time family films the movie might remind you of, Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney co-star as old guards about to retire, turning the whole mess over to Stiller. Van Dyke and Rooney haven’t lost a step. Robin Williams plays one of the museum’s more friendly displays, a wise and hale-hearty wax statue of Teddy Roosevelt. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan play off one another with enthusiasm as a miniature cowboy and a miniature Roman commander respectively.
If there’s a problem with the movie it’s the script’s insistence on inserting a cute kid. I’d have been blissfully happy with a stripped down movie about a hapless museum night guard caught flat-footed when the vicious mannequins in his display cases start terrorizing him. Instead, Night at the Museum tries to add unneeded layers to that premise by making Stiller’s character a down and out father who takes the job to provide stability for his kid, and then keeps it because he’s trying to impress him. The film didn’t need all that, toss it out and stick with the basics. This is an intentionally silly, fx driven, slapstick comedy and all the divorced father/son relationship stuff isn’t needed. Night at the Museum should be proud of what it is. The idea here is to have fun with it, not come away with an important life lesson about raising your kids. The lesson by the way, is that if you want your kids to love you you’d better have an awesome job to impress them with. Sorry mister garbage man, unless your trash cans can sing and dance, you’re shit out of luck.
That’s a minor complaint though because the film really does a good job of getting right down to the business of locking Ben Stiller in a museum with a crazy collection of gone berserk creatures and characters. Most importantly, it’s funny. Slapstick comedy is a forgotten art form. Sure we get plenty of slapstick movies, but none of them seem to get it right. This one does. The characters and creatures are great, and Stiller makes the whole thing a lot of fun. Night at the Museum is a purely entertaining piece of family frivolity, and what’s wrong with that? Take the kids, loosen up, and have a laugh. You’ll love it.