Many youngsters will be taken to Night at the Museum this holiday season with a chance to be amused by a comedy-adventure starring Ben Stiller in theatres equipped with IMAX. But, the story and unspectacular special effects will have little for the older folks with them to enjoy, except in its silly, reverential approach to the past.
The templet for Shawn Levy's picture would seem to be Jumanji, though it really comes from a children's illustrated book. It's surprising how tiring and lifeless the whole thing seems considering the opportunity for the filmmakers.
Set in New York's Museum of Natural History, Night at the Museum has Stiller's Larry, the new night watchman having more difficulty than he expected after dark. Contrary to what the occupation's humdrum nature entails.
There are retiring, suspicious former guards played by Bill Cobbs, a name-calling Mickey Rooney, and Dick Van Dyke wasted in a subplot.
Robin Williams may bring some chuckles as the embodiment of Teddy Roosevelt in full Rough Rider outfit as a peace negotiator. It seems that there is trouble between a tiny cowboy, an uncredited Owen Wilson and a Roman centurion commander (Steve Coogan). Larry will have to deal with prehistoric man and the Huns, especially Attila, who gives the audience a rise when letting it all out with our beleaguered guard.
Ominous things swirl around a talismanic golden tablet, while romance is in the air for Frank with a doctoral student and museum worker, a very pleasant but blank Carla Gugino. There's even an attempt to make a father-son connection into something emotional. The cutaways from little, wanting-to-have-a-more-likeable-ordinary-dad Nicky (Jake Cherry) reinforces this.
Yet, Levy (The Pink Panther, Cheaper By the Dozen) just tries to let the set pieces speak volumes as the screenplay by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon is hardly snappy or creative. Undernourished and clamorous are more applicable words as a series of digitally-rendered sketches run on to pointless effect.
That's not to say that many won't have fun with a T-Rex chasing Frank or a monkey slapping him around. Stiller can't overcome looking stiff as there is initially the promise of goofy, zippy escapism where physical comedy has been his bread and butter. Frank's officious boss is played by Ricky Gervais who might seem to be a funny character when we first meet him, but becomes tiresome shortly thereafter. Mizuo Peck appears as Sacajawea (which Larry tries ably to correctly pronounce), as well as Anne Meara (Stiller's mom) amid the schtick.
Levy whips up an uneven blend of gags and action with maybe some ad-libbing done by Wilson and Coogan to make their parts go down easier for them. The last act feels like a sugar rush compared to the lackluster start. Williams has been in this milieu before with the aforementioned Jumanji and Toys. But, the computer-animated, motion-capture driven Happy Feet where one of his roles made him sound like Barry White, at least, had some affection for its characters and their predicament. Here, the glossy casting and emphasis on effects (designed for giant screens) make for an audience-friendly, but hardly hilarious, hip blast to the past.