The new comedy Night at the Museum is a traditional, high-concept popcorn picture, one so old-school it almost feels like a lost Abbott and Costello vehicle, but it's tricked out with enough wit, energy and gee-whiz modern-effects wizardry to keep Mom, Dad and your little brother thoroughly entertained. Ben Stiller stars as, well, Ben Stiller, though he's given the name Larry Daley, a standard-issue movie single dad who's just a big goofy kid himself. Of course his ex-wife (Kim Raver) wants him to stop clowning and get a stable job so as not to disappoint their son Nick (Jake Cherry). So he lands a gig as night watchman at New York's Museum of Natural History, replacing three old coots set to retire: Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs and a still-feisty Mickey Rooney. The old farts drop a few hints and leave him a stack of well-worn instructions, but fail to spell out what Larry is in for, which he only figures out when the giant T. rex skeleton suddenly starts chasing him around the lobby. Yep, it turns out that the cursed amulet of the mummy in the basement magically animates the museum's displays when the sun goes down, and Larry is just the schmuck to clean up the mess. Soon he's dealing with such unruly residents as cavemen, Mongols, Vikings, assorted wild beasts and a cranky Easter Island idol demanding a tribute of bubble gum. He also has to stop numerous turf wars, such as the tiny cowboy (Owen Wilson) who thinks it's his manifest destiny to run a railroad through the neighboring diorama of a Roman emperor (Steve Coogan). Fortunately there are some friendly inhabitants willing to work for peace, like Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) who gives Larry inspiring pep talks, and Sacagawea who helps Larry woo the sexy museum docent (Carla Gugino) who just happens to be writing a thesis on the legendary Indian guide.
Director Shawn Levy is a grade-A hack, with rotten Steve Martin nightmares like The Pink Panther and Cheaper by the Dozen on his permanent record, but aside from excessive musical cues, he doesn't foul this one up too much. Robert Ben Garant and Tomas Lennon's script isn't anywhere near as sharp as their work on Reno 911!, but then again it's infinitely better than their Vin Diesel turd The Pacifier. If you can't predict the happy ending, or manage to giggle at the sight of Stiller in an extended slap fight with a monkey, then you just might be too art-damaged a moviegoer to enjoy this sort of harmless Hollywood fluff. But if this flick can send just one kid to go check out a woolly mammoth, then it's all worth it.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].