Night at the Museum

A truly family friendly movie is hard to come by these days. For some reason, the “family” title tends to get attached to movies loaded with bathroom humor. I guess most people figure that humor entertains the kiddies which makes the movie family friendly because parents don’t have to worry about the little ones for a few hours. Night at the Museum breaks away from that and provides an entertaining adventure that truly is family friendly without resorting to bathroom humor. Okay… Ben Stiller does get urinated on by a monkey, but other than that the movie is really more about a story the whole family can enjoy than just appealing to the lowest common denominator. At first glance, the basic premise of Night at the Museum appears to build off an idea just about everyone has had: what does happen to all the displays and exhibits at the museum when the building closes? Could those lifelike wax figures and magically historic artifacts really come to life? But make no mistake, Night at the Museum is actually about a man’s attempt to find some stability and show that he truly can be a good father to his son. The rest is just a fun way of making that happen.

Larry (Ben Stiller) is a bit of a dreamer. Unfortunately, like many dreamers, Larry has yet to find the one dream that will come true. By focusing his life on ideas like “the Snapper” (like the clapper only with snap sounds instead of clapping), Larry is an unstable mess. His bills are unpaid, he’s about to be evicted again, and worst of all, his son is taking more of an interest in his mother’s bond tradesman fiancé then his real father. In an effort to find some stability, Larry winds up taking a job as a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History. When he discovers the exhibits come to life at night, Larry winds up in a world that allows a dreamer like Larry to find success, yet affords stability. But even that doesn’t seem to be enough for a man who’s used to walking away from everything except his own son.

As much as I like Ben Stiller, quite frequently I find him in roles where the director refuses to reign Stiller in, choosing to allow Stiller’s ability to continue to ad lib a take until the gag has been drilled into the ground over moving a story along. To be fair, frequently that fault is Stiller’s own error, as he often directs himself. It’s my surprise, and Night at the Museum’s credit, that this is not one of those movies. Director Shawn Levy (The Pink Panther) focuses on his story, clearly taking advantage of Stiller’s affinity for improv, but clearly knowing when to pull the plug and allow the story to move on.

Truth be told, most of the stereotypical elements of Night at the Museum are underplayed instead of being traditionally over the top. That starts with Stiller’s improv, but carries on to other elements as well. Take Larry’s ex-wife’s fiancé, skillfully underplayed by Paul Rudd. Traditionally a character like that would almost be a superman figure, showing up Larry in every way. Instead Don is just a guy. The only trait he has going for him that puts him above Larry is that he holds down a steady, successful job. There’s no indication that he’s a better father than Larry, just that he’s more stable.

That underplayed element extends to other, traditionally wilder, members of the cast. Levy has assembled a veritable who’s who of comedic actors, many of who are well known for their ability to improvise. Robin Williams is incredibly tame as Teddy Roosevelt, as is Ricky Gervais as the museum’s curator. Legendary actors Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs play off each other excellently as the former night watchmen who are framing Larry, but none of them move to the moustache twirling exaggerations they could play.

Bringing the denizens of the museum to life requires quite a few special effects and, if anywhere, this is where Night at the Museum flails a little bit. Although the movie isn’t exactly groundbreaking, relying on tried and true effects like greenscreen mattes and CG animation, the effects fall short of selling the scene some times, particularly when trying to convince the audience that Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson, and dozens of cowboys and Romans are just a couple inches tall. It’s a minor weak point for the film though, and easily overlooked when looking at the movie as a whole.

Night at the Museum is one of those rare films I would recommend for the entire family. Kids will be entertained by the inhabitants of the museum brought to life, particularly Dexter the monkey and the giant T-Rex skeleton. Adults will enjoy the story of a dad trying to find stability for his son, particularly because it isn’t done in an especially sappy way or overdone. The effects might come up short sometimes, but the performances and story make this a grand adventure everyone can enjoy. Fox Home Video is releasing Night at the Museum in a variety of options, from the single disc widescreen or full screen to the two-disc special edition. The two-disc edition carries quite a bit more than its single disc competition, but is it worth the extra dough to get the bigger release? The answer depends entirely upon what you are looking for in a DVD.

The first noticeable difference between the releases is the packaging. The two-disc special edition features a lenticular version of the movie poster, with Larry standing in the museum’s hallway. Hold the packaging one way and it’s a blue, empty hallway. Turn it a little, the lights are on and Larry’s surrounded by notable figures from the movie. It’s a beautifully done cover, however that only helps if you take pride in your DVD artwork. Most people will probably toss aside the slipcover and forget about it shortly thereafter.

The two-disc version carries quite a bit of featurettes, explaining the thought process behind aspects of the movie ranging from costumes to visual effects to the set itself. Each one is brief but carries quite a bit of information. Although they are fun to watch if you typically take in these kinds of things, the replay value is pretty minimal. Once you’ve seen how things were done once, there isn’t much need to watch these again.

The praise I gave the movie above becomes even more evident watching the handful of deleted scenes. The first couple of scenes were cut to keep the movie’s pacing moving along. It’s a shame they were removed because they really help define how much trouble Larry is in between his bills and dreams (and one of the scenes features a hilarious appearance by “The Office”’s Ed Helms) but they were wisely removed. They are the kinds of sacrifices you’re glad to see a director make, even though you know they were painful cuts to make. That difficult decision is reinforced by optional commentary by Levy. The second half of the deleted scenes are mostly extended versions of scenes in the movie that show just how long Stiller can go on if allowed to ad lib until the film runs out. While it’s funny to see Stiller’s other ideas in play, the scenes drag quite a bit compared to how well they move in the film.

Other than these featurettes, deleted scenes, an outtake reel, and a storyboard comparison, the rest of the two-disc set’s extras are made up of promotional appearances for Night at the Museum. These include an episode of Comedy Central’s “Reel Comedy,” and episodes of Fox Movie Channel’s “Making a Scene” and “Life After Film School.” Again, they are worth a watch but quickly become evident they were intended more for publicity than for really unveiling how the movie was made.

All versions feature the film accompanied by a commentary track from Shawn Levy and another track by the writers of the movie. The writers’ track is particularly interesting considering how wide open the picture was left for improv by cast members like Stiller and Williams.

Other than the packaging, there is nothing that really stands out about the special edition release of Night at the Museum. It’s not of poor quality, but it’s not amazingly impressive either. For the movie it’s a lot of fun to watch. For the bonus material, it’s a mediocre release that will keep viewers entertained once or twice, but after that the movie remains the only thing worth returning to.