Night at the Museum
May 15, 2007
With the escalating budgets of tent-pole Hollywood studio films, the big budget comedy is an endangered species. Several recent ones with big movie stars attached have been scuttled because of their large budgets and the fear that they will be unable to make a profit. For these kinds of movies, the opening weekend is crucial and so advanced hype has to be carefully orchestrated in order to build the right amount of anticipation. Night at the Museum (2006) was the film that got it just right: a simple yet engaging concept, an all-star cast, state-of-the-art special effects and a little something for everyone.
Larry Daley (Stiller) is a single dad trying to make ends meet. He’s a frustrated entrepreneur looking for steady employment. On the verge of eviction, he gets a new job at American Museum of Natural History as the night watchman. On his first night, Larry is given an ominous warning by one of his fellow security guards (Van Dyke): “Don’t let anything in or out.” These words strike Larry as rather odd until he witnesses the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton coming to life and then chasing him through the museum.
Pretty soon other exhibits spring to life much to his utter amazement. He’s chased by lions, tormented by a mischievous monkey and caught up in the middle of the American Civil War display. He’s rescued from a miniature Roman army by none other than Teddy Roosevelt (Williams) who explains to Larry why everything comes to life every night. Larry soon realizes that in order to survive his job, he’s going to have to learn more about the exhibits he’s guarding and this help comes from a beautiful and knowledgeable tour guide (Gugino).
Impressive CGI brings many of the exhibits to life with startling authenticity and effect as Ben Stiller seamlessly interacts with tiny armies and animated dinosaur skeletons. He is well-cast as the hapless protagonist with a self-confidence problem. It’s the perennial underdog role that the comedian has popularized and refined over the years. His rubbery, expressive face works overtime reacting to all of the colourful characters and animals he encounters.
The film’s concept – all of the exhibits in a museum magically coming to life – is a kid’s dream and Night at the Museum features plenty of chases and broad slapstick to keep children amused and entertained while featuring an impressive line-up of big name comedians (Stiller, Ricky Gervais, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney) for adults to enjoy. How cool would it be to have all of the various exhibits come to life before your very eyes? The film also imparts a message of love and respect between a father and his son as well as a love of learning about the past. That being said, Night at the Museum is a decent film but not a great one with many of the jokes lacking that special something that makes such prior high concept comedies like Ghostbusters (1984) the well-regarded classics that they are.
The first disc features an audio commentary by director Shawn Levy. He says that ten years ago, the studio bought the rights to the book only for it to languish in development hell until recently. He points out that the opening credits were inspired by the ones in David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002). He praises Ben Stiller’s talents and touches upon casting actors to play against him. Levy also talks at length about grounding the film in characters with their motivations to contrast the surreal museum stuff. Levy speaks knowledgeably about various aspects of the film.
Also included is an additional commentary by screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. They start off trying to be cut with painfully lame jokes and ruminating about the cost of DVDs (?!). They touch upon how they went about adapting a 20-page children’s book. Their good-natured bickering tends to get tiresome after awhile. People looking for screen-specific comments should look elsewhere.
The second disc features eight deleted or extended scenes with optional commentary by director Shawn Levy. Included is the film’s original opening that feels more conventional while another scene provides motivation for Larry’s desperation to find a job. There is even a scene that Levy includes and singles out as completely wrong and explains why.
“Bringing the Museum to Life” takes a look at how they used CGI to bring all of the various exhibits to life. We see a scene before CGI and after. In the pre-CGI scenes, Levy played all of the missing characters so that Ben Stiller would have something to react to.
“Directing 101” is a montage of Levy acting ridiculous off camera for Stiller’s benefit.
Also include is a “Blooper Reel” where we get to see Mickey Rooney, Stiller and others flub their lines as the other actors’ reaction trip them up. Stiller’s cell phone goes off in the middle of a few takes, ruining them and so on.
“Monkey Business” examines the challenge of working Crystal the monkey (Dexter in the movie) with an interview with her two trainers.
“Comedy Central’s Reel Comedy: Night at the Museum” is a special that originally aired on the TV channel that features interviews with key cast and crew members with lots of clips from the movie. This is a fairly standard promotional featurette.
“Building the Museum” takes a look at how they recreated the American Museum of Natural History on a soundstage. Amazingly, it looks like a perfect match. The production and set designers did a ton of research and it certainly paid off.
“Historical Threads: The Costumes of Night at the Museum” examines the attention to detail paid to all of the exhibits’ clothes that had to be historically accurate but also cinematic.
“The Director’s Vision Comes Alive” compares Levy’s storyboards with the finished product. In many cases, they reproduced exactly what was drawn.
“Making of Night at the Museum” is another promo featurette with Levy talking about his intentions for the movie with lots of clips. However, there is more of an emphasis on the cast in this one.
“Fox Movie Channel Presents: Making a Scene” which dissects the scene where the T-Rex first comes to life and how the various elements (script, cinematography, editing, SFX, etc.) come together.
“Fox Movie Channel Presents: Life After Film School” where three film students talk with Levy about what he learned from film school and how he applies it to his films.
Finally, there is a teaser and theatrical trailer.