History comes alive in “Night at the Museum” — the movie, alas, does not. About as dull as a film could be with Attila the Hun, Teddy Roosevelt and lots of exotic wildlife rounding out the cast, this rambunctious, “Jumanji”-style extravaganza is a gallery of special effects in search of a story; rarely has so much production value yielded so little in terms of audience engagement. Still, star Ben Stiller and the promise of state-of-the-art (and at some venues, Imax-enhanced) visual wonderment should help “Museum” exhibit some B.O. life during and beyond the holiday frame.
Author Milan Trenc’s tall tale about the supernatural goings-on at New York’s American Museum of Natural History — in which every statue and figurine mysteriously comes to life at night — makes for a perfectly endurable 32-page children’s book.
In padding out that premise to accommodate a 108-minute feature, scribes Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon have supplied some perfunctory conflict, a creaky father-son drama and a few twists to explain the nocturnal phenomenon. But unlike the recent “Zathura,” which elaborated on its slim picture-book conceit with warmth, emotion and narrative surprise, “Night at the Museum” never feels like more than an excuse to show off the latest CGI advancements.
Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is a lazy dreamer whose inability to hold down a job or an apartment is taking a toll on his relationship with his son, Nick (Jake Cherry). With the encouragement of his way-too-understanding ex-wife Erica (“24’s” Kim Raver), Larry gets serious about his job search and ends up as night watchman at the museum.
Protag is initiated into his new gig by a cranky museum director (a surprisingly unfunny Ricky Gervais) and the three curmudgeonly, vaguely sinister guards he’ll be replacing (played by an impressive trio of veterans, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs). But nothing prepares him for his first night on the job, when an enormous T-Rex skeleton suddenly leaps to life.
With monkeys and lions and zebras (oh my) also shaking off their hibernation, and famous figures like the aforementioned Attila (Patrick Gallagher) running amok in the corridors, it’s not long before the museum starts to resemble a toga party thrown by history enthusiasts at the local zoo. Among the more recognizable faces are Robin Williams as a waxwork Teddy Roosevelt, nursing a bizarre crush on Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck); Steve Coogan as a pint-sized but militant Octavius; and, as an equally tiny American cowboy, Stiller’s perpetual costar Owen Wilson (making an uncredited appearance).
Under the supervision of Jim Rygiel (“Lord of the Rings”), the visual effects are imaginatively executed — from the various trick shots accommodating both Stiller and the Lilliputian figurines to the persuasively generated wild animals (courtesy of “Chronicles of Narnia” f/x house Rhythm & Hues, which clearly has the market cornered on photorealistic lions). Much credit should also go to costume designer Renee April, whose diverse creations here include Neanderthal garb, Roosevelt’s military uniform and the robe worn by the fictitious emperor Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek).
Yet surprisingly for a film that consists of one eye-popping bedazzlement after another, the overall feeling provoked is one of bland indifference. And though it comes equipped with handy lessons about the importance of knowing your history, the pic proceeds from the assumption that museums are inherently stuffy places — never mind that all this digitized mayhem is far less stimulating than, say, a guided audio tour of the Smithsonian.
Working on a broader and more expensive canvas than he has in the past, director Shawn Levy (“The Pink Panther,” “Cheaper by the Dozen”) can’t sustain a meaningful comic rhythm, let alone any interest in his central characters, who are consistently upstaged by the pic’s visual design. But then, this wouldn’t be the first time a filmmaker has been overpowered by the fancy gadgets at his disposal.
Naturally, Larry’s latent problem-solving skills soon kick in and, in the process, he proves himself to be a good father. But in the wake of the recent deadbeat-dad drama “The Pursuit of Happyness,” the film’s dramatic construction looks even more threadbare: Stiller’s Larry doesn’t seem to have a paternal bone in his body, while Nick is little more than a narrative appendage, trotted out at regular intervals to either grin or look cutely neglected.
Though the pic makes deft use of exterior shots of the famous Gotham institution, production designer Claude Pare largely conceived the museum’s interiors from scratch, with grandly convincing results. Alan Silvestri’s score is a bit on the obvious side.