What's your favorite movie? If you're like most people, it's a film you saw when you were little. Sure, your tastes may have changed in the years since, but it's a good bet that a so-called "family film" remains up near the top.
"Those are the movies that you really appreciate, the ones that have been able to stand the test of time," Ben Stiller said. "My daughter loves 'The Wizard of Oz.' To be able to share that with her [is great]."
A star of the animated "Madagascar," Stiller takes a stab at live-action family comedy with "Night at the Museum." He plays Larry, an out-of-work dad who takes a job as the night security guard at a museum where the exhibits come to life.
"I was never really that aware of family films until I had kids, and then I became very aware because you want to be able to see a movie with your kids that everyone can watch and enjoy together," the 41-year-old father of two said. "You hope that any movie you do in the family genre is going to be able to stand the test of time and have an emotional connection."
Will "Night at the Museum" be one of those films? What makes an enduring family classic anyway? Co-star Robin Williams thinks it boils down to a simple matter of tone. "It's the idea of not talking down [to children]," he said. "They are much brighter than you perceive. If you have a kid, you know that immediately."
Perhaps that explains why classic family films often tackle complex, adult issues such as abandonment ("Peter Pan"), sacrifice ("Toy Story") and even death ("Harry Potter").
"When you're an adult, it's kind of like you're supposed to say, 'Wasn't it beautiful being a child?' But [dealing with those issues] is a big part of being a kid," "Museum" co-star Owen Wilson said. "There's a lot of what [Marlon] Brando was saying in 'Last Tango in Paris.' Was it beautiful being made into a tattletale? To be forced to admire authority?"
Another necessary ingredient, the three actors agree, is fear — having something that taps into a child's deepest insecurities.
"I do remember being scared as a kid in movies," Stiller said. "But that's sort of what's fun as a kid: how far you can go without being really scared."
As Larry learns to deal with the museum artifacts that come to life, he also learns to overcome his own limitations. "Dealing with deep fears," Williams said, summing up the aim of a family film. "It's not, 'Oh, you shouldn't' do that!' It's coping with it."
Stiller believes the film's setting goes a long way toward creating an atmosphere where fear can be overcome — a location of limitless imagination and possibility.
"The Museum of Natural History is sort of like the centerpiece for [New York's] Upper West Side, and growing up there as a kid, that place was just amazing," he recalled. "It was exciting seeing these moments in time that were captured — the feeling that anything could happen there."
Even a great family film? Stay tuned. "Night at the Museum" opens December 22.
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