- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

History comes to life in “Night at the Museum,” the new Ben Stiller vehicle that’s part “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” part “Jumanji” but it may not be quite as vibrant as we’d like.

Taking inspiration from Croatian illustrator Milan Trenc’s children’s storybook, the plot follows Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), a hapless divorced dad who just can’t catch a break. His invention, the Snapper, never took off (darn Clapper), and since then, he has been hopscotching from job to job, apartment to apartment. His ex, Erica (Kim Raver), worries that he’s a poor example for their son, Nick (Jake Cherry). Nick, in turn, has taken to mildly worshipping Erica’s new bond-trading boy-toy (Paul Rudd).

Larry lands a last-ditch position as the night guard at New York City’s Museum of Natural History, where he is scheduled to replace a blustery bunch of old fogeys (Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs) who, while bestowing the museum’s keys upon him, caution him not to let anything “in OR out.” (You know; you’ve seen the omnipresent trailers.)

After dark, the museum quickly devolves into a prehistoric freak show as one-by-one, exhibits spring to life: the T. Rex, Lewis and Clark, Attila the Hun, the African mammals and so forth. As far as special effects go, the film exhibits fine work, from the T. Rex’s disorderly tail to tiny dioramas come to life. Action abounds in the foreground and aft, and it’s obvious that the screenwriters had a lot of fun playing with the possibilities here and toying with our preconceptions.

Our protagonist has about all he can handle the first night, but he can’t quit just yet he still has to prove his worth to his son. The only way he’ll succeed, however, is if he teaches all the parties to just get along, already. Too bad the retired guards have some nefarious plans of their own, which will make maintaining order next to impossible.

Mr. Stiller has never looked more fit and agile (must be all that dinosaur dodging). Yet, while he goes for athletic gold, he never reaches the comedic threshold of “Zoolander” or “There’s Something About Mary.” Additionally, Owen Wilson, who-guest stars as a tiny cowboy, has a few zingers, but mostly overacts his way through this film. (Perhaps a mini Napoleonic complex?) The duo even have a scene that borrows from their “hurt feelings” shtick in “Zoolander,” but it only reminds fans of that movie that this one isn’t as funny.

On the flip side, one of the film’s nicest surprises is a tightly reined Robin Williams playing Teddy Roosevelt. It’s incredibly refreshing to watch him fill out a role without all the mania and jibber-jabber.

Ultimately, a trip to the “Museum” is like a grade school field trip: There are lots of diversions to admire, and we get a nice lesson on preserving history, but it’s not all fun and games.

TITLE: “Night at the Museum”

RATING: PG-13 (Ominous themes, language and rude humor)

CREDITS: Directed by Shawn Levy. Screenplay by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, based on the children’s book by Milan Trenc.

RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes

WEB SITE: www.nightatthemuseum.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

Ben Stiller’s security guard in “Night at the Museum” falls victim to a miniature diorama cowboy.

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