Mixing comedy with elaborate special effects is a tricky balancing act. Humor requires at least the illusion of spontaneity while the effects have to be planned out to the last second. Sometimes it works just right and you get a movie like Ghostbusters, while other times you end up with a mess like Spielberg’s 1941. Night at the Museum falls somewhere between. It manages to amuse without possessing anything resembling originality.
Larry (Ben Stiller) is a divorced father with more ideas than ambition. His ex-wife (Kim Raver) is dating a type-A bond trader (Paul Rudd) to whom their son (Jake Cherry) has taking a liking. (Isn’t that something like stock story setup number 12B?) Forced to look for work, the only thing Larry can find is night watchman at the local museum. He’s replacing a trio of retiring guards (Bill Cobbs and Mickey Rooney), who manage to leave out a few crucial details about the nature of his job, namely the part where every exhibit in the museum comes to life after the dark, under an ancient mummy’s curse (what else?).
Between the African lions and the rampaging Huns, Larry also has to deal with miniature Romans and cowboys fighting each other and a T-Rex skeleton who likes to play fetch. His arch nemesis, however, is a capuchin monkey named Dexter. Larry’s only ally is the twenty-sixth (and not the fourth) president, Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), at least when Teddy’s not pining for Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Lewis and Clark’s native guide.
While not terribly original and overly dependent upon slapstick for its humor, the comic energy doesn’t flag and the movie doesn’t bore you with a lot of unnecessary subplots. There are few characters that never seem to lead anywhere, such as Carla Cugino as a pretty tour guide who was probably meant to be a love interest for Ben Stiller but is never a strong enough presence to really register.
As Jedediah, the leader of the tiny cowboys, an uncredited Owen Wilson comes dangerously close to running away with every scene he’s in and Mizuo Peck makes a bigger splash than the higher-profile actresses, despite a comparative dearth of dialog.
If you enjoy Ben Stiller’s brand of humor, you’ll probably get a rental’s worth a jollies out of this, but if you’re not a huge fan of his, this one is probably going to be hit or miss. If you genuinely despise Stiller, however, watching him get repeatedly bitch-slapped by a monkey is definitely worth the price of admission all by itself.