1½ stars (out of four)
You know Ben Stiller isn't coming off well in "Night at the Museum" when his character, a third-shift security guard at New York's Museum of Natural History, is beset by Attila the Hun and his marauding hordes and you find yourself rooting for the hordes.
Stranded in this charmless fantasy, Stiller is reduced to his old halting, squirming tricks. Hot (well, cold) off his "Pink Panther" remake, director Shawn Levy squanders a rich premise. Working from Milan Trenc's book, a brief and amusingly drawn affair, screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon strain to provide enough backstory and father/son bonding issues to fill out a feature. I suppose they felt they had to. But there's no wit to the results. If the same people filmed the old Syd Hoff museum-set kids' book "Danny and the Dinosaur," they'd no doubt pack it with mechanical thrills and stamp out any threat of whimsy.
Divorced and rudderless, Larry (Stiller) takes the security guard position so he can keep his apartment and provide some stability for his 10-year-old son Nick (Jake Cherry). A trio of veteran guards played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs, lately downsized out of their jobs, leave their replacement with only a tattered instruction book and some muttered good-luck wishes. They decline to let him in on the big whammy.
The big whammy: Thanks to an ancient curse, the museum's wax and plastic figures--Attila, Teddy Roosevelt, a woolly mammoth--spring to life at night. Larry must also contend with miniature diorama-dwelling cowboys, led by Owen Wilson, along with inches-high Roman warriors (Steve Coogan plays Octavius). The gigantic T-Rex skeleton causes the most fuss.
No one believes Larry's fantastic reports, especially not the museum docent played by Carla Gugino, the dishiest docent in docentdom. With a scenario so ripe in visual and comic possibilities, why does "Night at the Museum" grind along? Partly it's because everybody and everything comes to life in the same instant on Larry's first night, and it's a mess. The writers are content to let the magical beings simply run around and crash into things. I got a "Jumanji" headache about 30 minutes in.
A restrained Robin Williams portrays Teddy Roosevelt, smitten with the Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck). Larry plays yenta for these two, while sharing with his son the wondrous world of computer-generated enchantment the filmmakers never make clever or dazzling enough.
'Night at the Museum'
Directed by Shawn Levy; screenplay by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, based on Milan Trenc's book; cinematography by Guillermo Navarro; edited by Don Zimmerman; production design by Claude Pare; music by Alan Silvestri; produced by Levy, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan. A Twentieth Century Fox release; opens Dec. 25. Running time: 1:47. MPAA rating: PG (for mild action, language and brief rude humor).
Larry - Ben Stiller
Rebecca - Carla Gugino
Cecil - Dick Van Dyke
Gus - Mickey Rooney
Reginald - Bill Cobbs
Teddy Roosevelt - Robin Williams
Nick - Jake Cherry
Dr. McPhee - Ricky Gervais