Not exactly a night to remember

Reeling it in

Posted: Thursday, December 28, 2006

“Night at the Museum”

20th Century Fox

1 hour, 48 minutes

Museums are fascinating places, at least for Hollywood screenwriters and directors. Often portrayed as large, even cavernous, the museum represents a place of potential wonder and danger. I mean, who knows when one of those mummies is going to come to life? Or, could it be that the dark man in that painting just turned and looked at you?

The best museums, however, do bring their contents to life, exciting the imagination and curiosity of kids and adults alike. And fortunately, the adventure these repositories of history and culture offer is not nearly as ridiculous as the film they inspire, “A Night at the Museum.”

Ben Stiller is Larry Daley, a frustrated inventor-entrepreneur and divorcee, who desperately needs a job in order to keep his apartment and the respect of his 12-year-old son. An employment agency sets him up with an interview at the venerable Museum of Natural History, where he learns he is to be the new night watchman.

You’d think old Larry would have become a little suspicious when his interview is conducted by three elderly security men, including a sadly old, yet fiery, Mickey Rooney, and Dick Van Dyke, playing the “I’ve got a secret” card pretty heavily.

And suspicious he should have been for, on his first night on the job, Larry sees something he can’t believe. The giant tyrannosaurus skeleton, far from remaining quietly on its pedestal as it should, is down the hall, getting a drink from the water fountain.

After a thrilling chase down the corridors, petrified dinosaur teeth snapping at his heels, Larry takes a moment to read the instructions left for him by his predecessors. Number one on the list, “Throw the bone.” Turns out Rex is little more than a playful house pet intent on a spirited game of fetch. Not only that, but the entire museum is awake, an apparent nightly occurrence.

Up to this point, the film has been fun, somewhat unique, though a little silly, and entirely adequate. After Larry leaves Rex, however, the film starts an inevitable and rapidly increasing downhill plummet.

The museum consists of many different exhibits, from Neanderthals, to Lewis and Clark, to a wax Teddy Roosevelt astride a similarly wax steed. There are Chinese artifacts, Old West, Mayan and Roman Dioramas, Civil War re-enactments and even a giant blue whale hanging from a ceiling. But most important of all is the Ancient Egypt room, where lies the tomb of Ahkmenrah and his magical golden tablet, the source of the museum’s nocturnal mischief.

Larry’s real job as night watchman is to make sure that none of the exhibits escape, lest they be turned to dust by the sun’s rays. Too bad he can’t keep the plot from being similarly destroyed as an already silly premise becomes increasingly contrived and ridiculous with each passing scene.

Owen Wilson makes his obligatory Ben Stiller movie appearance as the leader of the Old West miniatures, and he and Stiller play out their funny, yet old-hat routine of introspective, emotional, buddy banter. See “Zoolander” for the origins of this, as well as to see it done better.

Stiller does a fine job, as does the rest of the cast, considering what kind of a movie they’ve been stuck with.

Robin Williams’ tiny role as Teddy Roosevelt is charming enough, but nothing can save the idiotic route the story takes in the third act.

This film is, essentially, “Jumanji” without the pedigree of actual award-winning children’s literature. It’s wacky animals come to life, and crazy historical figures places out of their time and natural setting for comic effect. It’s been done before, and better, and without the cloying and simplistic moral messages.

At one point Larry chastises the battling civil war soldiers with, “Hey! Civil War dudes. You’re brothers for God’s sakes. C’mon, the North wins. Slavery is bad. Get over it. At least the South gets the Allman Brothers and NASCAR, so let’s all get along.” Where was he in 1861? We could have use such scintillating diplomacy back then.

Perhaps it’s unfair to hold a movie like this one to that high standard of making sense. Despite what the trailers may lead you to believe, it’s obvious within a half-hour that this movie is made for kids. And if I was a 12-year-old boy, I’d probably love this movie.

There’s nothing offensive about it, particularly, and I suppose more monkey humor isn’t going to hurt anyone, other than possibly career-wise.

“A Night at the Museum” starts out strong, but soon barrels headlong into the abyss, making for one long night, indeed. Grade: C-

“A Night at the Museum” is rated PG for mild fantasy violence and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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