Thanks to over-informative trailers, pretty much everybody sitting down to watch Night at the Museum already knows that it’s about museum exhibits coming to life after hours. Movie marketers probably felt that it was OK to give so much away because so many inanimate objects have come to life in so many other stories for so many years (from The Velveteen Rabbit and The Nutcracker to Toy Story) that there’s no real surprise in it anymore.
Thus, the treasure’s in the execution, not the jolt. But for Larry Daley, it’s all about jolt. He’s not prepared in the least for what happens his first night on the job as a security officer at New York City’s Museum of Natural History. He’s terrified when he spies a T-Rex skeleton gulping down water from a drinking fountain. He runs for his life when Attila the Hun goes on the rampage. And he’s apprehensively bemused when, in a nod to the Liliputians of Gulliver’s Travels, miniature railroad builders from the American Wild West try to tie him up.
Larry just wants a steady job so that he doesn’t have to move away from his 10-year-old son who lives with his ex-wife and her new beau. He’s not interested in corralling hordes of Mayan warriors every night. Or playing mind games with a capuchin monkey. Or settling territorial disputes between the Wild West and the Roman empire.
But that’s the way the nightshift works at this museum. And if he’s ever going to win back his boy’s respect and esteem, he’s going to have to stick with it. And he’ll have to brush up on his history: To make the Huns, Romans, Neanderthals, Mayans, American settlers and dinosaurs all get along, he’s going to need to know a thing or two about them.
Four major themes are displayed in this exhibit:
1) Take the whole family to a museum! It’s like the docent says, “The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future.” (More on this in my “Conclusion.”)
2) Let’s just all get along. After getting his feet wet, so to speak, Larry spends most of his time urging warring factions to talk things out instead of just fighting. And by the time it’s all over, many of the at-odds individuals (and items) in the museum have done something to help somebody else.
3) To be “great” you’ve got to see things through. Larry’s known for never running his many “schemes” into the end zone. He always quits before the game’s over. At the museum he’s given the chance to redeem himself, especially in the eyes of his son, by toughing it out and working for the good of others rather than giving in to his own restless selfishness. The cliché-happy Teddy Roosevelt, who helps Larry get his head around the museum’s bustling nightlife, sums it up with his insistence that “some men are born to greatness while others have it thrust upon them.” How do you capture greatness? You refuse to stop reaching for it. “I’m made of wax,” Teddy says to Larry. “What are you made of?”
4) Love and understanding can break down even the highest walls. Several times we’re shown that if people would take the time to actually listen to those around them, we’d all be much better off. It’s an oddball, semi-satirical scene, but this idea is best illustrated when Larry empathizes with Attila the Hun’s emotional “predicament.” He shows the barbarian that he cares about him, tells him that he understands him … and gives him a big bear hug. Attila promptly starts to cry and hugs him back instead of pulling him apart limb from limb as he had originally intended.
OK, make it five themes. The fifth is crime doesn’t pay. The “old” night-watchmen (who were downsized and replaced by Larry) are apprehended for trying to steal from the museum, and punished by being forced to mop the floors every night.
Of lesser note—at least within the context of this film—Larry and his ex both show that they’re trying to now do the best they can by their son.
It’s a magical Egyptian tablet that brings everybody and everything to life each night. Its mummified owner, Pharaoh Ahkmenrah, also comes to life, and when he’s freed from his bonds, he uses the artifact to call the animated exhibits back to the museum. (They’ve strayed out into the city.) The three old watchmen insist that the tablet gives them renewed energy and vitality.
We learn from a conversation and from pictures in a book that Attila loved magic and dark sorcery. Roosevelt deems the monkeys “brothers,” stating that without them, “there is no us.” Later he encourages Larry to be the bigger, “more evolved” man.
For 50-some years Roosevelt has had his eye on Sacajawea. (He gazes at her through his binoculars.) Jedediah is obviously quoting from Brokeback Mountain when he tells Octavius, “I can’t quit you.” (The New York Times goes so far as to report, “Bizarrely, the movie gives their dispute a gay subtext.”) A sly reference to slang for masturbation (involving the monkey) makes it in, too.
Stampeding, prowling and parading beasts of all sorts do a fair amount of damage to the museum. Several times Larry thinks he’s going to die as he’s being chased by the T-Rex, lions, Attila, etc. He swats away the attacks of the tiny Romans, Americans and Mayans as they hurl miniature fireballs, shoot arrows and poisoned blow-darts, hit his head with a locomotive and try to shoot him with (empty) pistols.
The monkey bites Larry’s nose several scenes before it and Larry get into a slapping contest, repeatedly whacking each other across the face. Offscreen, a remote control Hummer being driven by a railroader crashes and explodes. Miniature battle scenes (swords, spears, cannons, etc.) stir up dust and debris, and they generate a lot of noise. But they’re completely bloodless and apparently free of real casualties. Bodies fall during an American Civil War conflict, for instance, but they seem to regenerate every day. One creature, an especially unlucky Neanderthal, does dissolve into dust when he stays outdoors too long.
The only blood I noted while watching the film is on Larry’s lip and cheek after he gets into a scrape with the old watchmen. That encounter involves the three men punching Larry in the face, drop-kicking him and pile-driving him. Elsewhere, Larry gets conked in the head by a flying hockey puck. Attila’s is rammed into the top of an elevator door. A guard is ejected from a racing stagecoach. Etcetera.
The scriptwriters never actually make Larry say anything vulgar, but they skirt the s-word when, after a poison dart numbs part of his mouth, they have him mumble “oh, thit.” A Roman general orders his troops to “unleash hell.” There’s one “a–.” God’s name is used as an interjection three or four times. “Jeez” and “dadgum” are said once each, as are the euphemisms “dang” and “freakin’.”
One of the three ex-watchmen gets his kicks by calling people names. Thankfully, he’s never crude, using such expressions as “weirdee,” “butterscotch,” “lunch box” and “snack shack.” Even better, Larry has several conversations with a railroader about how careless words can hurt.
Neanderthal cavemen live up to their supposed reputation by stupidly playing with fire (one’s hair ignites) and then eating the foam sprayed out of a fire extinguisher. The monkey urinates on Larry.
“Theme parks and movies are leaving museums scrambling to keep up,” Lin Ezell, director of the National Museum of the Marine Corps, told Time magazine earlier this year. “Passive exhibits just aren’t going to attract young people today.”
So some major museums have been adding more interactivity, holographic displays and even CSI-inspired forensics labs to bridge the gap. But nobody’s been able to make Attila the Hun come back to life, yet, or coax dino bones into playing a game of fetch. And that’s where Hollywood rides to the rescue. Maybe moviemakers started to feel guilty for hogging the whole show. Maybe they were just hungry for another Jurassic Park-size hit. Whatever the reason, they’ve done a huge favor for museums everywhere. If every curator in the country spent a solid month brainstorming ideas about promoting their exhibits, they wouldn’t come up with anything better than Night at the Museum. After all, when was the last time kids were inspired by a movie to beg their parents to go to a … museum?
The film itself slides effortlessly into the silly, let’s-just-have-fun camp of moviemaking. It’s not great by any objective standard, but it’s not dreadful, either. Any time dusty dinosaurs, stuffed lions and wax Presidents come to life, kids are going to eat it up. And the nostalgia-inducing presence of Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney will make adults want to forgive whatever cinematic insufficiencies arise. (I certainly wanted to.)
What seems to have been a painstaking effort to keep the film clean (very few objectionable words, no sexual jokes, no smoking, no drinking, very mild violence) will be much appreciated by families. And the film’s five big positive themes, while arguably a tad stiff from sitting on a display shelf all day, will still stick out to kids who just won’t believe their eyes when they see that giant dinosaur skeleton jump off its platform.