Larry (Ben Stiller) needs a job fast. He has always dreamed of making it big, but none of his schemes have worked and as his ex-wife points out, their son Nick needs some stability. After an employment counselor (Stiller’s real-life mother, Anne Meara) has only one suggestion for him, he takes it — night security guard at a natural history museum. Attendance is down and they’ve had to cut the budget. The three senior night-time guards are being let go. They toss him a tattered set of instructions and warn him not to “let anything in — or out.”
Larry plays around with the museum’s public address system and falls asleep. The next thing he knows, he’s being chased by a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, being asked for gum by an enormous Easter Island head statue (voice of “Everyone Loves Raymond’s” Brad Garrett), and being shot at by tiny natives with tiny poison darts. The Union and Confederate soldiers are shooting at each other and the cowboys are fighting with the Roman centurions. President Theodore Roosevelt and Attila the Hun are charging through the halls. Then there is a mastodon and some mischievous monkeys and some lions…
Larry has to find a way to keep peace, earn his son’s trust and respect, and finally stick with something all the way.
It’s a better than average CGI-fest, more often silly than funny. But it makes some good points about courage, self-respect, and the importance of learning about history. And Stiller and co-stars Robin Williams (as Roosevelt), Mizuo Peck (as Lewis and Clark guide Sacajawea), Ricky Gervias as the museum director, Paul Rudd as Nick’s soon-to-be stepfather, and especially Steve Coogan as a Roman soldier hold their own against the special effects and a terrific trio of veterans, Dick van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobb, as the outgoing guards show the young folks they still have a couple of things to learn. Be sure to stay through the credits to see them dance.
Parents should know that the movie has a good deal of comic peril, mayhem, and violence. Though much of it is cartoony and intended to be funny, a character is chased by a dinosaur, shot at, and punched. Characters use brief crude language and there is some potty humor. A strength of the movie is its portrayal of diverse characters learning to empathize with and support each other.
Families who see this movie should talk about why it was so important for Larry to feel that Nick was proud of him. They may also want to talk about some of the tensions and conflicts that can arise in families and what it means to have a “fallback position.” And they should go to some museums. Even if the exhibits do not actually come alive, they are a lot of fun and have wonderful activities for families. They should also learn about Sacajawea, Theodore Roosevelt, Easter Island, and Attila the Hun.
Families who enjoy this film will also enjoy the books and movie versions of Jumanji, The Indian in the Cupboard, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (more mature material).