Speaking of museums, here is the new Night at the Museum story. I was curious to see it. First, a movie about history coming alive – or actually being alive – is a great idea. It’s stimulating for the young minds and it deserves support just for that. Second, I was also interested in it as a postmodern application of the concept that the past is constantly rethought and reworked in people’s minds. It’s also a fantastic example of what I said in my previous post: that museum artifacts are important in themselves as symbolic carriers of traditions, but what ultimately counts is what we make out of them and how they play out in our public consciousness.
However, if you want to find some special insight on history, or even something fun about it, this is definitely not the movie to see. Artifacts do come alive in this night at the Smithsonian, but they behave as their most stereotypical and one-dimension selves. Napoleon is only worried that others might think he is short. Tiny mass-produced Einsteins in the museum store are bouncing their heads in relativistic yes-no indecision. Worst of all – and most offensive – Amelia Earhart is a flirty red-head whose fixation is mainly to get the protagonist night guard to pay any sort of romantic attention to her.
At least, a discerning adult audience might want to enjoy a play-out of a potential rearrangement of history. Even if characters are stereotypical, one might be curious to see how a stereotypical Ivan the Terrible would possibly interact with Napoleon and what outcome would that potentially produce. Would catastrophes be avoided in different settings and circumstances? Would terrible figures act differently? What new would we learn from that interaction and reconsideration?
Turns out, nothing. And unfortunately, it’s not just nothing creative or new; it’s nothing at all. In its creative rearrangement of historical material, the film is not even a useful illustration of historical events for the benefit of kids studying them in school. I would give it the benefit of doubt if at least it gave us back something relevant. But conflicts are symbolically resolved through the usual fights. Their creative lack of sense is aptly represented by the mindless face slaps inflicted by all indiscriminately, even among friends: protagonist to his capuchin monkey pals and vice versa, and then even by his romantic interest, Amelia.
In the end, kids who don’t know anything about Napoleon or Octavius would never understand why they are fighting and, in fact, why Octavius or General Custer happen to be on the side of the goodies and Napoleon or Ivan the Terrible on the side of the baddies. Neither would adults. They would just have to take the film for what it is – a plain action movie in which the most fun is brought to you by the joy of just, well, fighting. That’s history to you and it’s supposed to make going to the museum and learning something there enjoyable. Famous women live for a kiss and scientists, mass-produced plaything, don’t count in the fight but are the first ones to give out the secret to help the enemy.