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Night at the Museum

A Pleasant Night Indeed

Based on Milan Trencís childrenís book published in 1993, Night at the Museum is a family-oriented comedy/fantasy film directed by Shawn Levy (The Pink Panther, Cheaper by the Dozen) starring the ubiquitous Ben Stiller and the equally ubiquitous Robin Williams.

Levyís track record of lightweight, inoffensive family comedies isnít likely to convince moviegoers to run out and see Night at the Museum opening weekend, but if your family includes pre-teenagers or you count yourself among Ben Stiller and/or Robin Williams fans, there are far worse ways to spend a Saturday night.

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), a lifelong dreamer and schemer, takes a job as the night watchman at the Museum of Natural History to make ends meet and to avoid losing contact with his pre-teen son, Nick (Jake Cherry). Nick lives with his mother Erica (Kim Raver), an attorney, and her fiancť Don, (Paul Rudd), a bond trader, in comfortable, spacious digs. On his first night on the job, Larry gets the grand tour of the museum from about-to-retire guards, Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Gus (Mickey Rooney), and Reginald (Bill Cobbs). Cecil gives Larry an instruction manual and informs him to not let anything get in or out. Larry also meets Rebecca (Carla Gugino), a PhD candidate working as a docent at the museum.

A perplexed Larry soon learns the meaning behind Cecilís cryptic message: when the museum goes dark, it comes alive. Larry tussles with an over-friendly T-Rex, an African mammal exhibit, and various diorama subjects, including cavemen, Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), a miniature Old West exhibit fronted by an irritable cowboy, Jebediah (Owen Wilson), a Roman-era replica led by the temperamental Octavius (Steve Coogan), Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), a Mayan exhibit, a Lewis and Clark exhibit featuring Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), a mischievous Capuchin monkey, and an Egyptian exhibit that may just hold the explanation for why the museumís occupants come alive at night.

Story wise, Night at the Museum hits all the action and emotional beats moviegoers have come to expect from family films. The action scenes are suitably chaotic, the digital effects omnipresent (and, more often than not, noticeable), the humor broad (working more often than not), and Larry goes through a predictable sequence of personal challenges, including preserving the museumís magical inhabitants and bonding with his son who, in turn, learns to appreciate and accept his father for who he is rather than for who he should be; it's as inoffensive a message or theme as weíre likely to get from a mainstream family film.

Of course, Night at the Museum doesn't present a complex, nuanced view of history or the historical characters. Teddy Roosevelt, Lewis and Clark, Christopher Columbus, Attila the Hun, the Neanderthals, and the T-Rex, are exactly the types of characters children encounter in elementary school history books. Adults with a more sensitive view of history might object to the idealized depiction of Teddy Roosevelt as hero (his legacy is far more controversial than suggested here). Likewise with the naÔve, shallow depictions of the Old West and the Roman Empire. Night at the Museum was made with more modest ambitions in mind, though, least of which was making history palatable to its pre-teen demographic, and at that Night at the Museum succeeds.

Among other recent kid-friendly films, Night at the Museum will remind moviegoers of Jumanji, Toy Story, and going back more than four decades, "The Twilight Zone". Not surprisingly, the similarities between Night at the Museum and Jumanji are the strongest, especially with Robin Williams, Jumanjiís lead actor, appearing in Night at the Museum. All of which suggests that originality wasnít the highest priority for Levy or his screenwriters. The movie is ultimately undemanding, inoffensive entertainment, enjoyable during its running time, but forgettable moments after the screen goes dark and the lights go up.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars