It’s a real shame what’s happened to the family film as of late. Tinsel Town, in its ever increasing greed, has jerryrigged juvenile entertainment to be a part spectacle, part saccharine sedative, a weak willed entertainment entry guaranteed to keep the kiddies quiet and their parents satiated for the normally 90-minute running time. Gone are the days when real invention and originality sold the genre. In its place are merchandising mindsets using the lowest common denominator to determine potential returns. A couple of focus groups and a few preview screenings later, and our so-called “movie” has been mangled into a mass marketed commodity, perfect for the bottom line oriented minds managing Hollywood.
As such, the suits must be beside themselves over the success of the soulless Night at the Museum (new to DVD from 20th Century Fox). A big budget piece of overdone eye candy that has more in common with the high concept productions of the ‘80s than current post-millennial moviemaking, it represents supposed amusement at its most mindless and mundane. Completely unconcerned with character, creativity, imagination or innovation, it takes a tired old premise (from a book of the same name by Milan Trenc) and runs it through the CGI ringer. Toss in a bit of stunt casting, some unnecessary bathroom humor, and a big fat helping of warm and fuzzy false emotion, and you’ve got the perfect prescription for keeping the kids at bay. So what if it avoids the subtextual family issues presented, and the concept of history is but a hack variety act. As long as it makes money, no one cares.
When we first meet Ben Stiller’s Larry Daley, he’s a ditzy dreamer whose not worthy of spending time with his sensible son. His rich attorney ex-wife confronts his foolish whims every chance she gets, and her new bond trader boyfriend treats potential parenthood like a merger he can easily manage. As our about to be evicted hero arrives for his job interview at the title locale, the message has been repeated to us over and over: Larry can’t take care of himself because he’d rather skylark than sit behind a desk. When he is finally hired on as the night watchman (really nothing more than a patsy for a purposeless crime heist subplot), Larry becomes even more ineffectual. He must learn lessons about being a man from a long winded Teddy Roosevelt (the groan inducing Robin Williams), and scorned over his choices by a couple of diorama figurines; a hot headed cowboy (Owen Wilson) and a purposeful Roman General (Steve Coogan).
In between, Larry battles a menacing monkey (whose not beyond pissing on the guy just to get his simian way), a collection of computer-generated critters, and an Easter Island head who demands…bubblegum, of all things. The sequences when the museum indeed comes to life are uneventful and weak. Director Shawn Levy (responsible for the appalling Pink Panther remake) has nothing unique to show us during these scenes. The moments of miniaturized warfare between Owen’s frontiersman and Coogan’s armies are busy and overcrowded, while the occasional sequences of visual invention (a walking bronze figurine of Columbus surveying the scene, a pair of Egyptian icons come to life) end up going nowhere. Even as Larry must learn the secrets of keeping order and avoiding the potential perils in a place filled with dangers, our imagination is never sparked by the images we’re presented.
The movie also has a myriad of other problems, beginning with that age old criticism, missed opportunities. After all, why hire Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs, and an ancient Mickey Rooney as your slightly sinister security guards if all you’re going to have them do is spout stupid, hackneyed dialogue? Similarly, the sexy Carla Gugino is wasted as the potential love interest for Ben Stiller, a woman so obsessed with Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea that she spends her off hours ogling the museum’s wax replica. The stilted stunt casting (since when did Robin Williams become a kid vid favorite?) feels very B-list, and Ricky Gervais, a fan favorite thanks to his work on the seminal UK comedy series The Office, is about as funny as blood pudding.
This just leaves Ben Stiller, and our one-time creative comic actor is in complete and unadulterated sell-out mode, here. Some may find his middling mugging and frequent one-liners hilarious, but for the most part he is simply sleepwalking. There is no clear reason for his Larry to be such a loser, as we never get enough information about his past to deem him truly pathetic. Equally, his sense of self is schizophrenic. One moment he is arguing for his ability as a father and as a businessman, the next he is whimpering like an emasculated eunuch. One of the more perplexing parts of the film arrives when Stiller “looses” the instructions for keeping the museum in check. He is told to go read up on history, as knowledge will guide him in his quest. It’s a nice thought, but Larry doesn’t find a way to control the various warring elements in the building until they must all come together to defeat a common foe. His ‘heroism’ is reduced to simply being in the right place at the right time.
Of course, such sloppy scripting is typical of a project like this. In fact, on the accompanying commentary track, director Levy is quite happy to point out how often star Stiller went off-script to experiment with his “comedy genius”. Nothing like destroying narrative logic for ad-libbing. Night in the Museum is also a film firmly locked in on a specific conceit—a desire to astound and amaze—and it’s a sentiment clearly shared by the DVD release. Spread out across two discs, and demanding more than a little patience to wade through, what we end up with is a digital love letter to the fine art of F/X, a celebration of promotion and publicity, and a lot of misguided arrogance. It’s interesting how a quarter of a billion at the box office will change your precarious picture into a work of inspired art. Levy wants us to believe that every facet of this film, from his storyboard to scene work to the meticulous attention to costume detail, contributed to its commercial success.
It’s definitely not what’s up on the screen. At its core, Night at the Museum is an empty, faceless feature, a work of whimsy that wants to substitute scope for substance. Oddly enough, Levy recognizes this fact, repeating during his discussion over the main feature as well as the deleted / extended scenes that he was consciously aware of the audience’s desire to “get to the fun stuff”. How does one expect a film to succeed when character and story are being constantly skirted for more computer-generated monkeyshines? Even the proposed relationship with Gugino goes nowhere. Indeed, nothing here pays off, or tries to tie in to anything remotely important or inspired. Instead, we get a collection of comic (?) set pieces that do very little except drag on without any real rhyme or reason. And thus we have another depressing digital babysitter for parents to place in front of their fidgety children.