Some comedies beg the commercial scrutiny applied to drama, particularly when they grope for humor and fall miserably short. Others suggest that you see them as fable alone and judge the undertaking as you would a comic strip, with anticipation and good cheer. Director Shawn Levy’s movie is best seen as the latter. As a comedy about after-midnight goings on at the Natural History Museum, Levy doesn’t have a prayer. So he doesn’t try. He sets up a bare-bones plot, characters, caricatures and lets them lose.
Ben Stiller is Larry, divorced Dad–turned-night watchman (clichés included), who’s suddenly in over his head as Teddy Roosevelt, T-Rex (the dinosaur, not the band), Chris Columbus, Octavius (Steve Coogan), Jedadiah (Owen Wilson), and Attila the Hun are cursed cheerfully to life. Hapless Larry must deal with museum-gone mad, ex-wife, skeptics, and of course nefarious enemies (wonderful extended cameos from Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs, and Mickey Rooney).
All this silliness conspires to produces a charming little family tale about the value of history and why museums don’t work unless the visitor brings along imagination. Levy take too much time getting there, but once sweet Stiller is squarely planted in his come-alive world, the movie is benignly charming. Robin Williams’ Teddy Roosevelt is fun, but it’s Stiller’s comic deadpan that makes all the fluff work. There’s plenty to quarrel with when it comes to the divorced father side, but to hold anything so gentle in contempt is downright unfair. Larry consoling Attila the Hun is postmodern self-mockery at its absurd best.