Who says you don’t learn anything from the movies? Watch Night At The Museum and you’ll learn about Sacagawea, the Native American guide who helped Lewis and Clark explore the western United States. You’ll gen up on Attila the Hun, the fearsome 5th-century warrior, and Octavius, the legendary Roman emperor. You’ll find out about cavemen, Pharoahs and capuchin monkeys. But what’s the most important thing you’ll learn, kids? That Ben Stiller and $100 million’s worth of fancy FX don’t add up to much when you’ve got the director of Cheaper By The Dozen and The Pink Panther at the helm.
Don’t get us wrong: there are more laughs in Shawn Levy’s latest than in those two movies put together. It’s just that those laughs all come from what is basically the same gag – that, despite their fearsome reputations, the reanimated exhibits are simply in need of some TLC. Everything in Museum is packed with promise: the massive dinosaur skeleton that comes roaring off its podium; the bandaged mummy emerging from its sarcophagus; Attila and his horde of axe-wielding barbarians. But guess what? The T-rex merely wants to play ‘fetch’, the mummy just needs a bit of fresh air and the Huns are only furious because nobody’s told them any different. Tied to a railroad track like a modern-day Gulliver, Stiller’s hero faces being mown down by a train in a Wild West diorama... only for the tiny locomotive to bounce harmlessly off his noggin. “Shoot!” splutters Owen Wilson’s miniature cowboy in exasperation – a feeling you start to share as every relic-related peril turns out to be another damp squib.
But then, this film is all about unrealised potential. Take Ricky Gervais, for example, making his mainstream Hollywood debut as the museum’s prissy curator. Can the genius behind The Office energise the material with his goofy antics? Er, no. Gervais looks positively cowed, his bumbling inarticulacy becoming ever more awkward with each brief appearance. Williams seems no less muted, the wild man of improv so low-key he’s upstaged by his horse. Not even the sight of Stiller being body-slammed by Mickey Rooney raises the temperature above room. Indeed, the only thing that registers beyond the CGI mammoth and the star’s trademark Grinch routine is Wilson’s hilarious double-act with Steve Coogan’s Octavius, their pint-sized rivalry proving more engaging than anything their proper-proportioned counterparts can muster.
Had the film been based entirely around them, it might well have been a Night to remember. As it is, Levy’s picture feels rather like the outtake of a dancing Dick Van Dyke that’s tacked on to the end credits – mildly amusing, but pointless.