An intelligent mind acquires knowledge,
and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.
Although this is aimed at the popcorn crowd in love with special effects, it turned out better than I had expected. The basic plot device of a father trying to regain the respect and affection of his son is but the excuse for all the special effects at NYC’s Museum of Natural History, but it is played out well enough to make this a movie that young and old members of the family will enjoy. Larry (Ben Stiller) always has a pipe dream to strike it rich that he is following, but when his divorced wife tells him that he must get a job if he is to continue to see their son very often, he accepts what looks like boring work as a night guard at the Museum of the title. The three elderly night guards (among whom are Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney) who are being forced into retirement give Larry a tattered, coverless manual, and then leave, with the cryptic warning, “Don’t let anything in, or out!” Larry soon discovers the meaning of “out.” The T-Rex skeleton is the first thing to come to life—only the film reverses our expectation as it chases the terrified Larry through the halls. It is really no more than a giant skeletal puppy that wants for Larry to throw a bone so it can play fetch.
Other come to life objects are not so friendly, such as the bushmen who fire darts at him and the Mayan warriors from a diorama who fire arrows at him. The tiny beings from the Winning the West diorama even manage to encircle him as if he were Gulliver and drag him down across the railroad tracks so that the miniature train locomotive cab bonk him on the head. Larry even finds himself trying to make peace between the miniature Roman soldiers and the cowboys—a reconciliation that later proves crucial when the former night guards return to loot the museum. Fortunately, Larry is mentored by old Rough and Ready himself, there being a wax figure of teddy Roosevelt mounted on a horse that comes to life. Played by a restrained Robin Williams, TR gives him good advice, and Larry helps him develop a relationship with the woman he has admired from a distance, the figure of Indian guide Sacajawea.
For me the best part of the story is the sequence in which Larry is led by the experience of his first night at the museum to dig into the history of which he is so ignorant. Devouring book after book on the Romans, the Lewis and Clark expedition and more, he discovers the thrill of learning and what a wondrous place a museum can be. The film is silly, but the special effects and the famous cast playing cameo roles are a delight. I suspect that a good side effect will be to increase the number of the curious young flocking into the Natural History Museum to see the famous exhibits for themselves. This is a film that should be seen on the big screen, but preferably at a matinee or at a cheap seat theater.