Monday, December 22, 2014


Children that haven't seen the Robin Williams fantasy "Jumanji" (1995) may enjoy the supernatural shenanigans in the new Ben Stiller comedy fantasy "Night at the Museum" more than their elders. Like the "Jumanji" inspired space epic "Zathura" (2005), "Night At the Museum" plunges average everyday mortals—usually a single father and his children (numbers vary)--into paranormal peril, but the principals don't play games in this variation on a theme. As entertaining and imaginative as both "Jumanji" and "Zathura," "Night at the Museum" (***1/2 OUT OF ****) resembles one of its best computer-generated special effects—the rambunctious skeleton dinosaur that prefers to play fetch with one of its own bones like a dog. Meaning, "Night at the Museum" qualifies as bare-bones buffoonery that shuns literal logic for outlandish laughs. This 108 minute nonsense relies on lowest common denominator comedy with a PG rating. Ben Stiller makes himself appear suitably ridiculous as a divorced dad who wants to impress his impressionable young son. Stiller's on-again, off-again co-star Owen Wilson, best known for "Wedding Crashers," has a small role—literally speaking--but gets in a few jibes at Stiller's expense. Wilson plays a pint-sized cowpoke in a railroad diorama who clashes with an empire-building Roman centurion (Steve Coogan of "Around the World in 80 Days") from another diorama. The two constantly clash with each until our sincere, underdog hero convinces them to stop fighting each other and help him with the animals. Classic TV comedian Dick Van Dyke and classic screen comedian Mickey Rooney steal a couple of scenes from Stiller as villains forged in the "Home Alone" mold.  Although it relies lavishly on its special effects to compensate for its skeletal storyline and its superficial characters, "Night at the Museum" boasts more than enough breakneck adventure. Stiller gravitates between two gals, his ex-wife Erica (Kim Raver of TV's "24") and an attractive museum docent Rebecca (Carla Gugino of "Snake Eyes"), but the movie gives these relationships short shrift. The father and son relationship at the heart of the drama doesn't fare any better, serving largely as a plot device to advance the action. Unlike both "Jumanji" and "Zathura," "Night at the Museum" also contains armies of  Lilliputian soldiers along the lines of Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." Clearly, "Pink Panther" director Shawn Levy and co-scenarists Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon of TV's "Reno: 911" had their work cut out for them. They fleshed out Croatian artist Milan Trenc's 32-page illustrated novel, published back in 1993 by Barrons, and targeted primarily at pre-schoolers. Undoubtedly, Levy and company added the farcical scene where a small monkey urinates contemptuously on our hapless hero.

Brooklyn born Larry Daley (Ben Stiller of "Meet the Parents") is a deadbeat dad in search of a job. Larry is one of those crack-pot inventors who conjure up their ideas a little too late to capitalize on them. He explains to an unsympathetic job counselor, Debbie (his real-life mother Anne Meara), that his finger-snapping lights failed because most people found it far easier to clap rather than snap. While the "clapper" lights proved to be a success, Larry's "snapper" lights sank out of sight. Fearful that his ten-year old son Nick Daley (newcomer Jake Cherry) will be ashamed of him, Larry agrees to take a lowly job as a night watchman at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Of course, it doesn't help matters in Larry's eyes that his ex-wife's new boyfriend (Paul Rudd of "The 40-Year Old Virgin") has convinced Nick to follow in his footsteps as a Wall Street bond trader. The current day watchman, Cecil (Dick Van Dyke of TV's "Diagnosis Murder"), tells Larry that the museum plans to down-size security, and Larry will end up doing the work of three guards. Mickey Rooney of the venerable "Andy Hardy" movies and Bill Cobbs of "New Jack City" play the other two veteran guards. Cecil, Gus, and Reginald will retire from the museum since attendance is severely down. What they neglect to tell Larry is that the animals-on-display, the full-sized replicas of historical figures, and the finger-sized soldiers in the dioramas come alive at night. The next day Cecil enlightens Larry. According to Cecil, an ancient Egyptian artifact on the premises radiates an inexplicable power that brings these displays to life. If any of the museum pieces try to escape, they suffer the unhappy fate of being turned into powder at the first light of day. Otherwise, everything in the museum returns to normal. Craftily, Cecil, Gus, and Reginald have plans for that relic and Larry will be their unwitting fall guy. Virtually everything that can go awry in Larry's life occurs on the second night on his job, but the movie makers play it all for Keystone Kops style slapstick.

Despite the monkey that anoints our hero with a golden shower, "Night at the Museum" is about as family-friendly as a PG-rated movie can get. Although the violence is unmistakably synthetic, some youngsters may cringe at the rampaging T-Rex. The special effects wizards have again broken new ground in computer-generated animation, but the animals
themselves lack personality. Again, the T-Rex skeleton earns some laughs for behaving like a colossal canine. Robin Williams wears a period Rough Riders' army outfit throughout as former president Teddy Roosevelt, but he is as spontaneous as ever. Smitten by a pretty Indian maiden in a Lewis and Clark display, Teddy is too shy to talk to her until Larry coaxes him out of his shell. Chiefly, Levy and his scribes poke fun at Stiller as he struggles to outfox the obnoxious animals or befriend the historical figures. Nevertheless, everything is handled
with such imagination that it is no wonder this lightweight lark coined over $574 million worldwide. Don't leave the theater before the end credits conclude because you'll miss an important facet of the finale. If you enjoy "Night at the Museum," you should also check out "Jumanji" and "Zathura." "Zathura" to see how much better these movies are by comparison.

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