Ben Stiller delivers family fun

Ben Stiller delivers family fun

BY CATE MARQUIS, FILM CRITIC

At the museum, history comes alive. Really.

This oft-heard phrase is the basis of Ben Stiller’s new family entertainment film Night at the Museum, where a new night watchman discovers that the exhibits in New York’s fabulous Museum of Natural History all come to life when the doors are locked and the sun goes down.

While Night at the Museum has spectacular special effects and thrills, it also has comedy entertainment and even a little bit of a positive message about learning from history. Besides the giant T-Rex chasing Stiller around the museum seen in the movie ads, Night at the Museum is packed with cameo performances from comic actors such as Owen Wilson, Robin Williams, British comic Steve Coogan, Dick Van Dyke and even Mickey Rooney.

Ben Stiller might be better known for more adult comedies like the Meet The Parents films, Something About Mary or Zoolander but in Night at the Museum he gives us a terrific kid-friendly comedy. The New York-born Stiller grew up with comedy, coming from a Jewish show biz family. He is the son of Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara, whose Jewish/Irish routines helped make the Stiller and Meara comedy team a big hit in the 1960s. His father Jerry Stiller also is familiar to later audiences from his recurring role as George Constanza’s father on Seinfeld.

Night at the Museum is that perfect kind of family film, the kind that is enjoyable for both kids and adults. It has silliness, action and fantasy that will thrill the younger ones and comedy, warm charm and positive message about cooperation and learning that will appeal to parents, plus enough comedy and entertainment value for any audience. Mixing slapstick and comedy with chase and fantasy, this movie gives you roaming dinosaurs, mischievous monkeys and roaring lions, along with Attila the Hun, Teddy Roosevelt, an Egyptian Pharaoh and Sacagawea. We have the Wild West, the Roman Empire, ancient Mayans, and Civil War soldiers, plus an explorer whose name Larry can’t quite place, a little in-joke reference to one of the film’s producers, Chris Columbus. The comedy and entertainment values are strong enough that you don’t even have to have kids to enjoy this light, entertaining film. It is the winter season’s best family film.

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is a divorced father who is struggling to make a living and stay connected to his young son Nick (Jake Cherry). Larry has started a number of businesses, none of which take off, and keeps getting evicted from his apartments. What’s more his 10-year-old son has a growing admiration for his ex-wife’s (Kim Raver) fianc é (Paul Rudd), a successful Wall-Street type. In desperation to avoid yet another eviction, Larry reluctantly takes a job as a night watchman at New York’s venerable Museum of Natural History. A trio of retiring night watchmen (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs) gives him a quick tour, the keys to the building and a booklet of instructions, with their only warning being that he needs to follow the instructions exactly and quickly. Of course, Larry does not even glance at the manual.

When everything comes to life, we get a cast of comic characters and craziness, with poor Larry trying to stay alive until the doors open the next day. While there are terrific special effects and chases, there is plenty of comic material for the supporting cast of comedians as well. The movie’s visuals are spectacular. The museum looks lush and polished and the level of detail is perfect. The effects are first-rate, both awesome and convincing. Plenty of action and a good plot round out the package.

Directed by Shawn Levy, Ben Stiller delivers an appealing performance, gentler than his Meet the Parents type of comedy.

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