Now that the marvels of CGI have made the impossible possible, miracles are no great shakes. The sight of rhinos tearing through a living room in Jumanji might have dazzled family audiences 10 years ago, but when an entire museum gets animated in Night At The Museum, the wonderment doesn't automatically materialize. This may sound like bad news, like movie magic doesn't exist anymore, but it's really just a healthy challenge for filmmakers to avoid complacency and arouse their dormant imaginations. Sadly, Night At The Museum isn't up for the challenge; it's content to just populate its CGI world with kid-friendly slapstick, anachronistic gags and movie references, and stretches of fruitless improvisation from Ben Stiller and Robin Williams. And when it pauses from the chaos and noise for a heartwarming pro-family message, that's when it really gets deadly.
Dubbed a flake for silly entrepreneurial ventures that never pan out, Stiller has run out of money and faces what the film suggests is the darkest fate imaginable for a New Yorker: He may have to move to Queens. In danger of losing connection to his son (Jake Cherry), who's more accustomed to the uptown luxury of his ex-wife's place, Stiller swallows his pride and takes a job as the night watchman at the Natural History Museum. But the retiring night watchmen—played by old hands Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs—leave him with more responsibility than he ever imagined. At sundown, he discovers, the historical figures, prehistoric creatures, and miniature dioramas come to life, and it's up to him to keep the mayhem under wraps. His only friend is Williams' Teddy Roosevelt, but he spends much of his time eying a lonesome Sacajewea.
The "history comes to life" angle recalls Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, but the film doesn't go far enough in its whimsical vulgarity; instead of Joan of Arc as an aerobics instructor, or Napoleon at the bowling alley, there's Stiller and a monkey slapping each other, and Octavius quoting a line from Brokeback Mountain. Given a special-effects sandbox of this magnitude, director Shawn Levy and his screenwriters have endless possibilities for mixing-and-matching historical epochs, but they too often rely on Stiller to rescue the film with his PG-rated riffing. Though he gets some of his buddies to go along for the ride this time—including Paul Rudd, Steve Coogan, and Owen Wilson—Stiller's continued efforts to court the broadest possible audience has taken the edge off his comedy. Whenever he shares screen time with Williams, it looks like the grim future he's mapping out for himself.