Every once in a while, a movie comes along with a concept so sure-fire and universal that you wonder why it's never been done before. Such was the case with the genetically-engineered dinosaurs of 'Jurassic Park,' and the living toys of 'Toy Story.' Similarly, 'Night at the Museum' cunningly exploits one of the great wish-fulfillment fantasies of childhood -- who among us hasn't fantasized about what it would be like if the dioramas at the local museum came to life?
One big kid is about to find out. When we first meet Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), his life prospects aren't looking so hot. Always one get-quick-rich scheme away from fame and fortune, Larry considers himself an "idea man." To everyone else, he's a loser with a capital L, a go-nowhere guy who's always one step away from the poorhouse. Larry finally gets his wake-up call when, on the eve of yet another eviction and bankruptcy, his ex-wife (Kim Raver) tells him she wants to bar Larry's custody visits in order to shield his son Nick (Jake Cherry) from any further disappointment. You know you're a sad sack when even your own son tells you, "Dad, maybe you're not extraordinary. Maybe you're just an ordinary guy who should finally get a job." Ouch.
Needless to say, Larry quickly takes the only job he can get -- night watchman at Brooklyn's Museum of Natural History. There, he learns of a decades-old curse that allows the denizens of the museum to come to life every night and to roam free within the confines of the building. Should any of the inhabitants fail to return to their spots before morning, however, they'll turn to dust. But while Larry is provided with a special guidebook by a trio of retiring security guards (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs), it can't begin to prepare him for the challenges he's soon to face. Can Larry rise to the occasion and for once finish a job that he's started?
Ben Stiller continues to prove he's a great funnyman with 'Night at the Museum,' maintaining a likable character while still slipping in improvised one-liners and stand-up shtick. Just witness his recurring Laurel and Hardy routine with a mischievous monkey, or the way he disarms Atilla the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) with a self-help speech that would make Dr. Phil proud. With such hilarious, madcap moments seamlessly integrated into the narrative of 'Night of the Museum,' it's no wonder the film grossed over $200 million at the domestic box office alone. Just Stiller running around the museum, battling all sorts of crazy attractions, would have been enough to entertain and enthrall children of all ages.
Thankfully, 'Night of the Museum' aims a little higher. Special effects and big action sequences are great, but a great theme can elevate a blockbuster even higher. The best Hollywood blockbusters innately understand this, from perennial favorites like 'The Wizard of Oz' to Steven Spielberg's modern-day masterpieces, particularly 'E.T.' 'Night of the Museum' follows in this grand tradition, and ultimately it will be Larry's ability to take charge of the situation, and realize that the extraordinary is actually in the ordinary, that gives 'Night at the Museum' resonance. It's a simple parable, but one very well told. Perhaps no one will remember 'Night at the Museum' in five years, but for every one of its 108 minutes, I felt like a kid again. I truly haven't had such a charming and fun-filled ride at the movies in years.
'Night at the Museum' is Fox's premiere Blu-ray release of the season, so nothing less than terrific will do. And for the most part, this 1080p/MPEG-2 transfer delivers. Though I wish Fox hadn't decided to confine 'Night at the Museum' to a BD-25 single-layer disc, I can't fault the master -- it's in great shape -- nor the film's visual design, which is certainly polished, colorful and vibrant.
Indeed, the positives are many. Director of photography Guillermo Navarro ('Hellboy,' 'Zathura') finds a wonderful balance between dark and light, which give the movie a rich, classical feel. Contrast can be slightly hot, but not enough to ruin detail, and the transfer is nicely textured and often very three-dimensional. Colors really pop, especially the deep browns, oranges and reds, which are free from smearing. Blacks are spot-on, and grain is minimal.
There are some problems, though. Colors sometimes appear oversaturated in scenes like the opening title sequence, while fleshtones can sometimes appear a bit too orange. A slight amount of black crush also erases fine detail in the shadows, though it's not severe. But what really knocks 'Night at the Museum' down a peg is some of the most overt edge enhancement I've seen on either next-gen format. Halos are pretty obvious on sharply-contrasted objects, and hard edges often shimmer with any camera movement.
Don't get me wrong -- 'Night at the Museum' is certainly more than watchable, and often looks fantastic. It's really a pity the edge enhancement issues weren't corrected, because without them, this would have been a top-tier Blu-ray transfer, no contest.
Fox offers up another DTS HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 surround track track for 'Night at the Museum,' and even though current Blu-ray hardware is only capable of extracting the disc's DTS 1.5mpbs "core," the film's sound design is always exciting, creating a consistent sense of envelopment.
As you would expect given the 'Jurassic Park'-like story, this one really "comes alive" when the various inhabitants of the museum do. From the rampaging T-Rex skeleton to the giant Egyptian guardians of the Mummy, the surrounds are alive with discrete effects. Their clarity is first-rate, with seamless pans and airtight directionality that manages to create a nice "wall of sound" throughout. The quality of the recording is also excellent, from the crystal-clear dialogue to deep low bass. I also enjoyed no problems with volume balance, which is often a problem with these big-budget action spectaculars -- even Ben Stiller's gravelly voice is audible. All that's lacking is more sustained ambiance, as non-action scenes can be a trifle boring and front-heavy. But no matter -- 'Night of the Museum' sounds great.
The major disappointment with this Blu-ray release is its supplements package. For whatever reason, Fox has opted to limit 'Night at the Museum' to a BD-25 single-layer disc, and the limited space is likely the reason why the majority of the video-based extras included on the two-disc standard-def DVD version don't appear here. Instead, this supplements package is anchored by two audio commentaries, which are certainly nice in their own right, but they're no match for a full-fledged special edition.
Director Shawn Levy goes solo on the first track, with co-screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon hosting the second. A combination of both would have been the ideal, but Levy's is certainly the better listen. The guy never stops talking, and clearly has a great affection and enthusiasm for what he calls "the film I'm most proud to have made." Bringing 'Night at the Museum' to fruition was a ten-year journey, which is really surprising considering how commercial the material is. Levy is also quite adept at filling in all sorts of colorful production stories, from Stiller's considerable input in developing the story to having to "audition" legends Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney. The screenwriters, naturally, focus much more on the story, but it's just not as interesting as Levy's tales of mounting such a major, effects-filled adventure.
The only other included supplements are the film's Theatrical Trailer, plus additional spots for five other Fox Blu-ray titles: 'X-Men: The Last Stand,' 'Eragon,' 'Fantastic Four,' 'Ice Age: The Meltdown' and 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.' All are presented in 1080p/MPEG-2 video.
'Night at the Museum' is a truly rousing family film. It has laughs, adventure, excitement, and a heartwarming message -- somebody stop me, I sound like a marketing exec's dream. Fox has also delivered a very fine Blu-ray release, with a colorful transfer, a lively soundtrack and a few good extras. Unfortunately, this next-gen version of the flick is somewhat slimmed down compared to the two-disc standard DVD set, dropping nearly all of the video based extras. I also was disappointed with the amount of visible edge enhancement on the image. But while I hope Fox will correct these issues on a more fleshed-out BD-50 dual-layer version at some point in the future, don't let these minor quibbles stop you from enjoying this otherwise stellar Blu-ray release of 'Night at the Museum.'