Night at the Museum review by Mike Long

Anyone else out there a fan of the books by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child? I've been following the adventures of Agent Pendergast for years, and I always enjoy the parts of the novels which take place in the Museum of Natural History in New York City. In the books, the Museum is presented as a dark, brooding, and ominous place, where danger can easily lurk. So, it was an interesting change to see the Museum offered up as a place of charming fun in the hit family film Night at the Museum.

Ben Stiller stars in Night at the Museum as Larry Daley. Larry is definitely down on his luck, as he's divorced, unemployed, and nearly broke. He is a ne'er do well inventor and his ex-wife (Kim Raver) has become unsure about letting their son, Nicky (Jake Cherry), stay with Larry. So, Larry swallows his pride and takes a job as a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History. When he arrives at the museum, he meets the other guards, Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Gus (Mickey Rooney), and Reginald (Bill Cobbs), three older men who are being forced to retire. They give Larry some cryptic instructions and wish him well. Larry settles in for the night and prepares for an evening of boredom.

But, Larry is in for a huge surprise when he learns that everything in the museum comes to life at night. Soon, Larry finds himself being chased by a T-Rex skeleton, being harassed by a monkey, fleeing from Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher) and conversing with Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams). The insanity convinces Larry that he should quit, but he then decides that he should persevere and try to master the job. While Larry is attempting to control the animated inhabitants of the museum, he soon finds himself facing a group of thieves.

For some reason, Night at the Museum was savaged by critics and dismissed by many on-line posters. And for the life of me, I can't understand why. What happened to the days when we could simply enjoy a fun-filled family adventure film? I don't see Night at the Museum as being that much different in tone (but not necessary quality) from classics such as Star Wars, E.T., and Home Alone.

At the same time, the movie made about $250 million dollars at the box office in the U.S. So, apparently, someone liked the film. I think that many of the naysayers had forgotten what it was like to believe in magic. Night at the Museum certainly has some flaws (more on that in a moment), but the film is overflowing with a sense of magic and whimsy. Who hasn't been in a museum and, while looking at the exhibits (especially the stuffed animals), wondered what it would be like if they came to life? This movie perfectly captures this idea, and while it is a mild family film, it doesn't pull any punches with the fact that you actually wouldn't want some of the exhibits coming to life -- such as the lions or Attila the Hun. The movie does a nice job of balancing showing the magic through the eyes of the disbelieving and cynical Larry and then through Nicky.

Night at the Museum also does a good job of maintaining its balance between outright fantasy film for kids, and a comedy which adults can enjoy. Of course, the fantasy elements are top-notch. From the moment in which the T-Rex skeleton comes to life (a moment which was spoiled by the film's trailer), we know that we are in for a treat. As we meet the other entities in the museum, they range from fun (the Easter Island head voiced by Brad Garrett), to the slightly creepy (the faceless Civil War soldiers). But, thanks to great casting, the movie is a treat for adults as well. Along with Stiller and Robin Williams, we have Ricky Gervais, Steve Coogan, and an uncredited Owen Wilson providing some solid laughs. And, of course, it's great to see that Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney are still game.

But, Night at the Museum isn't perfect. Director Shawn Levy has made some awful films in the past, such as Cheaper by the Dozen and Just Married, and he shows that he still has a thing or two to learn. Some of the jokes fall very flat, and there are some scenes of Ben Stiller mugging which could have easily been cut. And while this may seem like nitpicking, since we've seen the trailer and we know what's going to happen, the first reel of the film seems to move at a snail's pace as we wait for Larry to spend his first night in the museum.

As a parent and a life-long movie fan, I struggle to find films which my whole family can enjoy. Luckily, Night at the Museum is such a movie. The kids love the action and the silliness, while I like the humor and...OK, I love the T-Rex too. The movie is flawed, but hey, it's a good-time popcorn flick and there's nothing wrong with that.

Night at the Museum comes to life on DVD courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. The movie has come to DVD in three separate editions, one widescreen, one full-frame, and a 2-disc widescreen version. For the purposes of this review, the 2-disc edition was screened. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. As one would expect from a recently-released box-office smash, the image looks quite good. The picture is sharp and clear, showing no grain and no defects from the source material. The image is very well-balanced and although some shots are dark, the action is always visible. The colors look very good, most notably the reds and greens. My preview copy did display some notable pixellation, but I can't comment on whether this will be present in the final version. The DVD offers both a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track as well as a DTS 5.1 track. Both offers clear dialogue and sound effects, and both take advantage of the film's nice sound design. When the T-Rex began to stampede, my walls were shaking. The surround and stereo effects are good as well. Both tracks are fine, but the DTS track is a bit clearer.

Disc 1 of this 2-disc set of Night at the Museum features two AUDIO COMMENTARIES. (These two commentaries are also available on the single-disc versions.) The first features director Shawn Levy, who gives a spirited talk. Knowing that this is meant to be a kid-friendly DVD, Levy keeps the talk light and really focuses on the making of the film without getting too technical. In sharp contrast, the second commentary features screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, who are both convinced that no one would want to listen to their commentary. They talk about what went into writing the script, but they discuss Reno 911 as well. (It should be noted that this is the only extra which really mentions the source book.)

Disc 2 contains a wealth of extras, some of which blend together, so I'll focus on the high-notes. The DVD contains 8 DELETED SCENES, which run about 17 minutes. Three of these scenes give us more detailed examples of just how broke Larry really is, and they would have made the film's opening even slower, not to mention more depressing. Two other scenes show how more of the finale took place outside of the museum. Cutting these was a wise choice. There are also some extended scenes which were clearly cut for pacing. "Building the Museum" (7 minutes) is a fascinating piece which shows that the film wasn't shot inside the real Museum, but on a very detailed and vast set. "Bringing the Museum to Life" (6 minutes) examines how the actors were forced to react to nothing as they acted in scenes where visual effects would later be placed. (Shawn Levy is shown acting out these non-existent characters in "Directing 101" (4 minutes)). There are additional featurettes which focus on costuming, animal training, and storyboards. The DVD includes the THEATRICAL TEASER and THEATRICAL TRAILER for Night at the Museum.

8 out of 10 Jackasses

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