Saturday 6 January 2007

Saturday 6 January 2007
Cert: PG Duration: 108 mins
DIRECTOR: Shawn Levy
WRITERS: Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon (based on the book by Milan Trenc)
CAST: Ben Stiller (Larry Daley), Carla Gugino (Rebecca), Dick Van Dyke (Cecil), Mickey Rooney (Gus), Bill Cobbs (Reginald), Jake Cherry (Nick Daley), Ricky Gervais (Mr McPhee), Robin Williams (Teddy Roosevelt), Kim Raver (Eric Daley), Owen Wilson (Jebediah) & Steve Coogan (Octavius)

Director Shawn Levy has quickly gathered a reputation as an uninspired filmmaker whose main success was lazy Steve Martin comedy Cheaper By The Dozen (2003). Martin went on to star in Levy's The Pink Panther remake (2006), a film so awful it would ordinarily spell the end of someone's career, but Levy is back for one last stab. And, truth be told, he's probably kept the circling sharks at bay...

Ben Stiller stars as Larry Daley, an estranged father who takes a job as a museum night-watchman in order to prove his commitment to his young son Nick. Soon after being handed the reigns by the three older men he's replacing, Larry soon discovers the museum's remarkable secret... all the exhibits come to life at night!

What follows is an array of visual effects: an impressive T-Rex skeleton, legions of tiny Romans fighting tiny cowboys, a misbehaving monkey, three Neanderthals, some Vikings, various African predators and historical celebrities such as Roosevelt, Sacajawea, Attila the Hun and Columbus.

The script by Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon is formulaic at best. The three act structure is neatly divided into three nights at the museum and there isn't much invention in translating Milan Trenc's source novel. That said, the movie does offer a few late surprises that manages to boost Night At The Museum just when it begins to lose its sense of magic.

The cast are all on solid form. Stiller is always fun to watch, even if he's just peddling his There's Something About Mary character for the umpteenth time. While clearly on autopilot, Stiller interacts with the CGI extremely well and his performance is never upstaged by all the eye candy.

Carla Gugino is criminally wasted as Rebecca, a museum creator who appears to be Stiller's love interest, but just isn't. For some reason, despite the writers' adherence to convention everywhere else, they totally snub a romance between Gugino and Stiller and then fumble the father/son relationship that seemed to be the point of the film judging by the opening 10 minutes.

Most of the supporting actors involved give good performances, particularly Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney as ex-security guards, with Van Dyke in particular reminding audiences that the star of Mary Poppins has lost none of his charm. Robin Williams is excellent as Teddy Roosevelt, in a role that's easily his best mainstream performance in years, while Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan steal the show as a rival cowboy and Roman.

Unfortunately, Ricky Gervais wastes his role as the museum director, in a small role that's unfunny and awkward. Family comedy is clearly not suited to his underplayed and faltering style. Kim Raver (TV's 24) is great as Larry's ex-wife, but her character is totally forgotten after the opening moments and doesn't resurface.

Once the museum explodes to life the plot focus entirely on set-pieces and the struggles Larry faces with this situation -- both with animated exhibits and some human villains. It ignores everything else in its attempt to entertain and this lack of attention to the characters ultimately cripples the film. That said, there are some modest history lessons tucked away in the script and the message that "museums are fun" does get through.

In summation, Night At The Museum is easily Shawn Levy's most successful film yet (despite a flawed script) and a huge leap in quality from The Pink Panther. Levy is clearly enjoying himself with all the visual mayhem and everything culminates in a satisfying chase sequence. There's plenty for audiences to enjoy and the movie should satisfy young audiences in particular, but anyone over 12 will find it forgettable entertainment that should have been much sharper.

If only greater care had been taken with the character development and relationships, Night At The Museum would have delivered a real punch. As it stands, this is decent entertainment for young children, but nothing remarkable. The effects and winning performances from Stiller, Van Dyke, Williams, Wilson and Coogan make it a palatable experience, but Night At The Museum is clearly a film that needed more time at the drawing board.