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'Night at the Museum' at 16: Shawn Levy reflects on the franchise's 'childlike wonder'

"I think movies that break out and become huge blockbusters tend to tap into a collective wish fulfillment."

By Josh Weiss
Night at the Museum (2006)

It was late 2004 when Emma Watts summoned Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant into her office.

The former head of production at 20th Century Fox wanted to deliver the bad news in person: the studio would not be moving forward on a second Taxi movie with Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah. The good news? Lennon and Garant were still under contract to deliver another project. Watts fanned out several options on the coffee table, "and one of them was Milan Tranc’s The Night at the Museum," Lennon recalls over Zoom.

Published in 1993, the brief children's book tells the story of a kindly night guard named Larry who watches after museum exhibits when they come to life each night. "We read it there in her office ... and we're like, ‘This is an absolutely perfect movie idea,'" Lennon remembers. "We reverse-engineered it and we're like, ‘What would be a ‘logical' reason that things in the museum would come to life? Well, who had strong belief in the afterlife and that you would pack up your things to go with you to another world? What if we tied it into some sort of Egyptian mythology?’"

Ben Stiller boarded the film (which is now streaming on Peacockin November 2005 as Larry Daley — originally named "Frumpkin" after Lennon's favorite cousin — a divorced and struggling inventor who accepts a job as a night guard at New York's Museum of Natural History in order to remain close to his son, Nick (Jake Cherry).

Larry takes over for three retiring watchmen — Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Reginald (Bill Cobbs), and Gus (Mickey Rooney) — but gets more than he bargained for when every statue, mannequin, and wax figure in the building comes alive once the sun dips below the horizon. The magic comes courtesy of an Ancient Egyptian tablet made of solid gold.

Thee Night At The Museum; Night At The Museum (2006)

Fresh off his gig as supervising art director on The Day After Tomorrow, production designer Claude Paré was hired to get a jumpstart on set building before the project had even locked in a director. "The script came in and we were like, ‘Oh, my God! This is a big f***ing movie!' he exclaims. "We built everything. The big hall was two stories high. The doors were 14-feet high. It was like the real thing and it was just inspired by the texture of the Museum of Natural History."

The sets were built on massive soundstages in Canada with an eye towards detail. They were so large and elaborate, in fact, that Rooney once got lost and, assuming he had wandered outside, relieved his bladder on a nearby wall.

"We had painters doing all the diorama paintings. We had to get the dressing inside of them and they looked amazing," Paré continues, citing The Hall of African Mammals as a memorable example of the sheer amount of craftsmanship on display. "We designed the position of the lions and we found someone who was able to create that for us with lion skins. When you think about this today, it would all be visual effects."

Even the T. rex skeleton (nicknamed "Rexy") was a handmade product of glazed styrofoam crafted by the same artist who designed the famous dinosaur statues outside the Madrid rest stop in Quebec

Paré spent a whopping two years on payroll, enough time to see a post-Van Helsing Stephen Sommers do an uncredited rewrite on the screenplay before dropping out as director. The studio ended up choosing an up-and-coming filmmaker by the name of Shawn Levy, who, at that time, was known for successful comedies like Big Fat Liar, Cheaper By the Dozen, and The Pink Panther.

"Night at the Museum was this very daunting opportunity because it was asking me to build a world with visual effects and spectacle that was beyond anything I'd done. But I finally got my head out of my ass for long enough to say, ‘Yes,'" Levy tells us, going on to add that this movie represented a major turning point in his career.

"It led to huge creative growth, it led to a chance to work with 30-some odd actors over the course of that franchise, who are both legendary and now many of whom are dear friends. But the success of those movies really changed my life because it penetrated the global culture in a way that I've never experienced before. This franchise sits very close to my heart and always will."

Over the last 16 years, Levy has evolved into one of the most prolific director-producers in Hollywood with high-profile and VFX-heavy blockbuster titles like Real SteelStranger Things, Free Guy, The Adam Project, and Marvel Studios' upcoming Deadpool 3.

"Night at the Museum was the first time I was super intimidated by technology, but I eventually learned it," he says. "The same thing happened on Real Steel with the motion-capture and the robots. The same thing happened with Free Guy and the culture of gaming. And the same thing is happening right now making my first movie for the MCU. The big movies and the juiciest opportunities often present challenges that scare us. But that's reason to say ‘Yes,' that's not a reason to say, ‘No.’"

The fantasy-comedy greatly benefitted from Stiller's improv chops paired alongside a talented ensemble made up of Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Rami Malek, and Carla Gugino. In particular, Williams' warm-hearted turn as Teddy Roosevelt stands out all these years after the beloved comedian's death.

"Robin Williams is like the father figure in the movie and saying these things that we wrote. My poor son, I don't know how he feels about Night at the Museum because the first time he it watched with me, I was weeping so hard," Lennon says. "It looked like I was having some kind of meltdown."

"He did anything you wanted him to do," adds Paré. "But when the camera shut down, he'd just fall like a puppet that you let go. He went and sat in his corner and was very quiet and humble. He was someone who needed a spotlight. That's all I remember of him, other than being a really nice guy."

Night at the Museum (2006)

Subsequent installments in the Museum series added more and more talent in the form of Hank Azaria, Amy Adams, Ed Helms, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader, Jon Bernthal, Dan Stevens, Christopher Guest, Ben Kingsley, and Rebel Wilson. "These are clash-of-the-titans heavyweight pairings that I would still give my left arm to direct," Levy declares. "It was just so many examples of comedy pairings that were magic. Anything was possible because you're talking about the fastest comedic minds who have ever made movies."

Night at the Museum opened on this day 16 years ago and brought in over half a billion dollars at the worldwide box office by the end of its theatrical run. "I think movies that break out and become huge blockbusters tend to tap into a collective wish fulfillment — a collective, basic, human 'What if?’" Levy muses. "I think that everyone who's ever been in a museum sometimes looks at these objects and feels like, 'Is there a hidden life to that thing? Did that thing just move?’ I think that it taps into this very childlike wonder and questioning of, ‘What if museums came to life after dark?’"

He continues: "Those are always North Star goals for me on anything I direct. But Night at the Museum was starting off with that massive ‘What if?’ and I think that that's why these movies succeeded the way they have and why they are still watched. I remember the first time I met Ryan Reynolds, he was like, ‘My girls will not stop watching Night at the Museum,’ and that was 10 years after I made that first movie. So to know that they live in the culture of family perennials, that’s meaningful to me."

The movie was so successful, that Trenc eventually wrote a second book, Another Night at the Museum, which was published in 2013. Naturally, a return to the Museum of Natural History was assured, with the 2009 sequel — Battle of the Smithsonian — sending Larry and Nick to Washington DC for an adventure alongside the federally-funded exhibits. 

Once again, Paré and his art department were brought on to construct full-scale recreations. "I went to see the Air and Space Museum and we built it onstage," says the production designer. "We built everything. Shawn wanted to have everything real. And when you think about it today, 15-16 years later, we would never do that, build sets 60 feet high. Never. We would build like 24 feet and then set extension would take care of it."

Lennon reveals that he and Garant pitched "an entirely different" follow-up, in which Larry must traverse London, collecting his inanimate allies, when they're accidentally delivered to the Harrods department store instead of the British Museum.

"All of the museum's stuff went to Harrods and all of the Harrods stuff went to the museum," the writer explains. "So he's got to race across town as everything's waking up over at this department store and they ended up enlisting Richard III. A bunch of really weird stuff happened, but it was a fun movie."

They wrote several drafts of this version before a high-ranking studio executive insisted on moving the second movie to the U.S. Capitol. "So then we started writing on that, which was tricky, because the Smithsonian's like 19 buildings," Lennon continues. "So there was a lot of reverse-engineering to do to get things to make sense in such a vast bunch of museums."

The European backdrop would eventually find its way into the third installment — 2014's Secret of the Tomb — which was credited to writers David Guion and Michael Handelman. It was a profoundly bittersweet conclusion to the trilogy, given the fact that Rooney and Williams both passed away before the release. Like the various wax figures and stuffed animals on display during the daytime, the franchise went into a state of dormancy following one last global box office haul of $363 million.

That is until October 2020 when it was announced that the Mouse House intended to continue the story in an animated sequel. Now streaming on Disney+, Night at the Museum: Kahmunrah Rises Again sees Larry's son (voiced here by Joshua Bassett) following in his father's footsteps as a night watchman at the Manhattan institution as he goes up against the titular evil pharaoh from Smithsonian.

Levy — who returned to produce alongside Chris Columbus — estimates that the conversation to pivot from live-action to animation began at Fox about five years ago when streaming was still finding the solid ground on which it now stands:

"It didn't feel like the right moment to talk about a reboot of a live-action franchise around this title. But it certainly felt like the characters were beloved and iconic enough to consider a different form of storytelling [which is] what animation allowed us to do. It’s why it’s been a really fun gig for me, even though I'm pretty busy on other things, is there are things we can do in animation that we could never afford to do in live-action. For instance, time travel by using artworks that comes to life. We had wanted to do that idea years ago in one of the Museum sequels. But here, we were able to do it and we were able to do it with shots and visual spectacle that would cost too much money to do live-action, but are totally organic to animation."

Directed by Matt Danner (The Loud House), Kahmunrah Rises Again also features the voice talents of Zachary Levi, Jack Whitehall, Bowen Yang, Gillian Jacobs, Steve Zahn, Jamie Demetriou, and Lennon. The co-writer behind the first two live-action movies actually voices Teddy Roosevelt, but did not use his Night at the Museum franchise credentials as leverage during the hiring process.

"They just sent it to me and said, ‘Do you want to audition for this?’ And I was like, You know what’d be really funny, [is] if I don't say anything and I just auditioned for it?’ So I did. But I didn't call Shawn and ask," he admits. "I didn’t say, ‘Oh, I wrote the movie this is based on.’ I just sent in my audition as you always do. I thought that would be the way that fate would decide if I should do that or not."

Night at the Museum is currently streaming on Peacock.