When Larry (Ben Stiller) accepts a position as a night watchman at the New York Museum Of Natural History, he discovers that thanks to an enchanted Egyptian tablet all the exhibits come to life after hours.
If you saw Jumanji or Zathura, you know the drill. The source here is an illustrated children’s book by Milan Trenc rather than Chris Van Allsburg, but it’s been worked over in Robert McKee-besotted manner by the journeymen (Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) who wrote Herbie Fully Loaded and The Pacifier, and the hack director (Shawn Levy) who gave you Cheaper By The Dozen and the Pink Panther remake.
The kid-friendly anarchy of this ‘after hours’ story — rampaging dinosaur skeleton! Marauding Huns! Toy cowboys versus toy Romans! A naughty monkey! — is confined by a rigid three-act structure (the plot actually covers three nights at the museum) and the protagonist’s whiny character arc. Hands up who goes to a fantasy-adventure in order to see a foul-up dad learn to be a better person and be rewarded with the adoration of his formerly disappointed son or (for those unconvinced by the brat) a possible clinch with a stone fox museum guide (Carla Gugino). There’s a full reel of Ben Stiller playing loser kook while his ex-wife (Kim Raver) purses her lips and claims their son “can’t take another disappointment”, before a trio of twinkling seniors (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs) hire him to start an overly complex plot which is never properly explained (it seems they have their reasons for wanting an inept idiot to take over the job).
When the exhibits come to life, it’s a lot less fun than it ought to be. It seems you can get enough of a CG dinosaur skeleton playing fetch, not to mention Robin Williams (hey, wasn’t he in Jumanji?) as an inspirational waxwork Teddy Roosevelt, a feud between miniature Wild West trail boss Owen Wilson and Roman centurion Steve Coogan (playing his second tiny animated plastic figure, after The Indian In The Cupboard) that involves the year’s most gratuitous Brokeback Mountain in-joke, Ricky Gervais striking out while the iron is hot as the stuffy museum director and the ‘hilarious’ sight of Stiller being piddled on by a murderous comedy monkey. In reality, the film spends most of its running time making you nostalgic for comparative classics like One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing or The Cat From Outer Space.
The tagline is everything comes to life but this energetically charmless family fantasy lies there dead on screen, occasionally twitching at a funny line.