There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to “mean” horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid.
—Teddy Roosevelt, An Autobiography (1913)
Larry (Ben Stiller) is anxious. He means to impress and instruct his 10-year-old son Nicky (Jake Cherry), but he’s mostly overwhelmed by adult expectations. He tends to handle his anxieties with jokes that are primarily funny to him. When he drops by his ex’s apartment, he spots her fiancé (Paul Rudd), outfitted with a belt that holds his various communication devices and clutching a travel coffee mug. Ha ha! observes Larry, “He’s like the Batman of stock brokers!” Erica (Kim Raver) rolls her eyes. “Bond trader.”
Poor Larry. He can’t even get his digs right. Jobless, he’s not only threatened with eviction at the start of Night at the Museum, but also Erica’s judgment that his instability is “not good” for Nicky. Worse, Nicky’s thinking about bond trading as a “fallback” for his dreams of being a hockey player. Worried that his dad’s dreams are getting in the way of his present life, Nicky asks, “What if you’re just an ordinary guy, who should get a job?”
This would be the crucial question for Night at the Museum. How and when do you have to admit to yourself that your childhood dreams aren’t going to come true? When do you give in to being ordinary, get a job, and just settle? Seeing that the Batman guy might be having a bad influence on his kid, Larry takes a decision: he’ll get a job, no matter what it is, if only to use his time with Nicky to encourage him to think beyond obvious limits.
But of course, the job he finds is not so regular (it helps, perhaps, that he’s directed by an employment agent played by Stiller’s mom, the most wonderful Anne Meara). Arriving at the Museum of Natural History, Larry is immediately taken by the beautiful docent, Rebecca (Carla Gugino) and sniffed at by museum administrator Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais). He’s also instantly welcomed by the men he’s supposed to replace, a trio of security guards—Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Reginald (Bill Cobbs), and Gus (Mickey Rooney), who takes especial delight in calling Larry names like “Butterscotch” and “Cupcake.” Advised that he must read the handwritten instruction manual carefully, in order to follow each step in order, Larry agrees, then promptly falls asleep on his first night.
When he wakes, he finds an amazing change has occurred. At night, the museum displays all come to life, from the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton (very energetic and nimble, skidding across the museum’s polished floors) and a crew of cavemen to Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) and his limb-rending minions. Larry spends his night scampering from one suddenly mobile display to the next (with many others—Pilgrims, Eskimos, elephants and a Chinese jade lion—walking through scene backgrounds), barely avoiding catastrophe. Serially assaulted by three different crowds of diorama figures, Larry tries to mediate between the cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and Roman Octavius (Steve Coogan) are trying to get into each other’s territory.
Understandably alarmed by all the activity (not to mention his belated reading of the list of instructions, an in #3: “Lock up the lions or they will eat you”), and feeling lucky to survive a Gulliverian takedown by Jedediah’s very screechy team (cowboys, their womenfolk, and some Chinese railroad workers), Larry decides he’s had enough (the movie, however, loves the homoscial joking between buddies Wilson and Stiller, from complaints about “manhandling” to size worries). The next morning, he tells Cecil he’s not taking the job, until he is—that is, when Nicky comes by with Batman in tow, looking to be impressed by dad’s new gig.
And with that, Night at the Museum is pretty much done, though it has another 45 minutes or so to kill. The next few nights in the museum offer a few more antics and a deepening relationship between Larry and the historical figure he’d like most to believe in, Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams). Astride his horse Texas, the 26th U.S. president mouths maxims, most frequently, “Some men are born to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them.” In another movie, perhaps, this hoary pronouncement would be the occasion for yet another of anxious Larry’s jibes. But by now, in this movie, he’s got a hankering for greatness.
And yet… the movie is decidedly un-great. It’s repetitive (how many times do we need to see magically animated creatures scrambling up and down stairs or, in the case of the warlike types, fighting?) and strangely invested in its silly explanation of how the animated creatures phenomenon comes about (something about an Egyptian pharaoh’s tablet). It makes a cursory case for the significance of “first working mother,” Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), though she’s unable to speak or hear the action for much of the film, stuck behind a soundproof glass exhibit. And it promotes reading, as Larry researches all his new charges in a bookstore (apparently in one day) and the inscription over the museum’s front door announces the importance of “Knowledge,” as a means to expand horizons. That said, the movie remains limited by formula, as Larry makes his way from anxious to un-anxious.