At last, a history lesson that won’t make you fall asleep.
Well, sort of. While “A Night at the Museum” isn’t nearly as hardcore as the specials you might come across on the History Channel in the early hours of the morning, the film does give its viewers basic facts of the past amid its layers of skimpy comedy. Who would’ve thought that knowledge of Attila the Hun’s interest in sorcery could be so useful?
These tidbits become vital information for the survival of Larry Daley (Ben Stiller, “Meet the Fockers”), the new night watchman at the Museum of Natural History in New York — where at night everything in the museum magically comes to life due to the mysterious power of an ancient Egyptian tablet.
Though his aging predecessors caution that this is no ordinary job, Larry finds out the hard way, and his first night is predictably wrought with surprises. After he’s attacked by miniature Indians, ridiculed by a mentally impaired statue from Easter Island and barely escapes an encounter with Attila the Hun, Larry is rescued by a gallant Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams, “Man of the Year”).
Teddy explains that it’s his duty to keep the peace at all costs and prevent any museum exhibits from escaping and turning into dust when the sun rises. Understandably taken aback, Larry grits his teeth and decides to keep the job to avoid looking like a loser to his adoring son, Nicky (Jake Cherry, “Friends With Money”).
The film’s plotline is nothing spectacular, but it revives the concept behind “Toy Story” and successfully ushers it into real life. The result is a seamless work of video editing that makes a three-inch-tall cowboy version of Owen Wilson (“Wedding Crashers”) interact both believably and effortlessly with Stiller, his seemingly permanent cinematic sidekick.
Wilson’s laidback quirkiness steals the film’s best moments, especially in his dealings with fellow miniature Steve Coogan (“Coffee and Cigarettes”), a Roman gladiator with a British accent.
Williams is also cast well as a Ruff Ryder-era Roosevelt who’s secretly in love with Sacagawea (OK, so the film shouldn’t be taken too literally). Despite his stock dialogue on bravery, Teddy cultivates Larry’s heroic side and shows him that he’s capable of being a great man – not that this lesson is half as memorable as the joking reminder that Williams is just an exhibit when his wax body is accidentally chopped in half.
Despite fancy visual effects and a few chuckles, “Night” is in sore need of sharp one-liners. Instead it relies heavily on Stiller’s reputation as a funnyman to carry scenes. This only works to a certain extent, but without any quick humor written into the role, the physical antics grow stale.
Nonetheless, a Hollywood comedy with any educational value is so rare today that “Night at the Museum” might be worth taking your little sibling to.
And with its light-hearted tone and guaranteed happy ending, it might have just enough spunk for adults as well.