The history of classical Hollywood film style, based in a characteristic form of continuity editing that dates back to the early 1920s, tells the story of making things easier and safer. This is the dominant theme that courses through every study of box office trends, every memoir of a director or actor's career, every aesthetic survey. Outside of a burble in the late 1960s and much of the 1970s, there is a direct connection that can be made, with the American film industry wanting to make money by giving American (and later, international) audiences exactly what they claimed to want in the most unchallenging form that could be devised. It is a national cinema based upon ease of use - sometimes producing great art, sometimes great entertainment, frequently just satisfactory and bland product that does nothing but fill up 90 or 120 minutes. Take away nothing else from all I have written, but at least take that.

I mention this now because with 2006's Night at the Museum, we arrive at something like the perfect embodiment of that ethos. It is a film that can be perfectly and wholly described with the word "harmless", which is a kind of victory. This film's own three-years-later sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, cannot claim to rise to such heights, with its fetid anti-history and trivial jokes that diminish the humanity of the characters within the movie and the audience watching alike. No, there is something that's actually quite perfect about Night at the Museum, which meets its goals with clean, elegant precision. "Being a worthwhile movie that is in any way memorable" simply isn't one of those goals.

Let us not start with the plot, but the plot hook, for that is exactly what the movie (adapted by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Grant from Milan Trenc's 1993 picture book) does itself. Ben Stiller is the night watchman at the New York Museum of Natural History, where every night all of the exhibits come alive through Egyptian magic. Look at Ben Stiller running from a T-Rex skeleton barreling through the halls! Look at him taking life lessons from President Theodore Roosevelt, played in a remarkably calmed-down register by Robin Williams! Look at him fight with a naughty monkey! Look at him patiently endure the ineffectual weaponry of an inch-tall cowboy played by Owen Wilson and an inch-tall centurion played by Steve Coogan!* And other equally fantastic concepts that nudge us in the ribs and ask "wouldn't that be cool?" as urgently as they possibly can.

And I suppose it is, at that - it's the kind of stuff that bookish 8-year-olds eat up (full disclosure: I was a bookish 8-year-old, but that was over two decades before I first saw the movie), which is probably why Night at the Museum made a startlingly large pile of money for such a ditsy little lark (it was the second-highest grossing film of the year in America, though it was a soft year at the box-office). The seams are showing now, with some compositing that looks pretty ratty (any shot where the Wilson & Coogan characters share the screen with Stiller feels like shitty midcentury rear-projection), and erratic CGI (anything non-organic - dinosaur bones, statues - looks fine, but the animals are all dreadful, and I have to imagine that was obviously true even in 2006). And these do serve to knock a little pixie dust off the magic, which hurts the film overall, since that magic is the one and only card Night at the Museum has up its sleeve.

Certainly, its disinterest in the story it uses to stitch together all of the effects is palpable. It's part of the weird subgenre of movies about the difficulties of parent-child relationships after a divorce, aimed at children but with all of the film's emotional attention paid to the dad's feelings about the whole thing (the genre's most famous entry, Mrs. Doubtfire, also starred Williams and was directed by NatM producer Chris Columbus). A sociologist might have a field day with unpacking what the hell is going on there (male film executives with guilty feelings about their failures as parents, trying to make propaganda to convince their children to love them?), but I'm going to stick with pointing out how weird it is to expect those same bookish 8-year-olds to empathise with Larry Daley's (Stiller) angst over seeing his son Nick (Jake Cherry) starting to drift closer to his mom's (Kim Raver) new husband (Paul Rudd, only about a year away from being able to reject such thankless, unfunny small roles). Or to nod in sorrowful agreement at his difficulties finding a job which can sustain him in a decent-sized New York apartment despite a spotty employment record. In the real world, I doubt very much that job would actually turn out to be night watchman at an underperforming museum, but this is a fantasy.

So anyway, Larry is given a very useless introduction by the old guards - twinkly Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), surly Gus (Mickey Rooney), and soulful Reginald (Bill Cobbs) - and thrown into the lion's den, which turns out to be literal, triggering the part of the of the movie that drops all the plots and focuses on the gentle comic mania of Larry dealing with the museum's many wacky, uncontrollable denizens. When the plot wanders back in from its cigarette break, it has completely changed its character to become a random and insufficient "stop the crooks!" bit that the film cares about so little that it doesn't even bother to resolve it, leaving the wrapping-up wholly inauthentic conflict to a mid-credits stinger that doesn't fit with continuity anyway. The family drama, at least, fits a bit more organically into the whole thing, with Larry and Nicky re-bonding over their adventures stopping the bad guys. Bet you didn't see that coming.

But really, the narrative of Night at the Museum is blobby and incoherently paced; it has no meaningful structure until the second half begins. It really is just an excuse watch Stiller interact with CGI and celebrity cameos, and the script is just there to give it some kind of pretext and emotional stakes that are only present about 40% of the time. All of this is shaped by director Shawn Levy into a carefully anodyne collection of slapstick gags interspersed with silly scenes of broad characters talking. Which is actually enough to make this, arguably, Shawn Levy's all-time best movie: his work is usually aggressively stupid and loud and insulting to human dignity, but Night at the Museum actually turns out to be simply bland and impersonal in the way it cleanly builds up its gags using a very clear set of visual cues (like the T-Rex coming to life sequence, in which every shot telegraphs the next one with dogged strictness of purpose that's such a perfect example of playing by the rules and not injecting a whisper of imagination into the proceedings that I'm actually kind of impressed by it), and the slow-downs and leading close-ups that tell us when to feel feelings and what those feelings out to be.

The film is safe and airbrushed in every regard - even the concept for opening credits, the "floating words over New York" trick that had been greeted with such acclaim just four years earlier in Panic Room, is repeated with all the thematic resonance taken out: now it's just a shiny toy among many shiny toys. It takes invisible little pauses to stop and do a little bit teaching about many of its subjects - the Roman Empire, Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), the Hun empire - to make it even safer, since it's not just a vague, pleasantly forgettable fantasy that can be easily napped through while the kids are hopefully enjoying it: it's vague, pleasantly forgettable, and educational. And its success did spike admissions at natural history museums, which is the one absolutely unambiguous good to have come out of the whole production.

All in all, then, a perfect example of what the studio system has always wanted: they spend money, you spend money, they get more money from you than they spent, you don't feel like you just had somebody piss in your face. Even though pissing puts in a regrettable appearance to help the film meet its scatology quotient. Nowhere in all that contract is there a requirement that the studios do anything inspired or that you end up feeling meaningfully entertained. And so we end up with the platonic perfection of Night at the Museum, an effects-driven exploration of endless fantasy that ends up being one of the most neutrally adequate blockbusters of the modern age.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 2006
-Pixar proves itself mortal with the fine but unexceptional Cars
-John Cameron Mitchell brings explicit sex, a staple of European cinema, to the States with Shortbus
-David Lynch endeavors to straight-up murder cinema with his video experiment INLAND EMPIRE

Elsewhere in world cinema in 2006
-Thailand's Apichatpong Weerasethakul releases the bifurcated tribute to his parents Syndromes and a Century
-Ten Canoes is the first film made entirely in an Australian Aboriginal language
-Paris, je t'aime attempts to bring back the great omnibus films of the '60s with 18 segments by an international consortium of brand-name directors

Reviews in this series
Night at the Museum (Levy, 2006)
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (Levy, 2009)
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Levy, 2014)