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Life After Dark

By Madelyn Ritrosky

(Photo: left) A legion of Roman Gladiators prepares to wage war on museum security guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller). Photo credit: Rhythm & Hues. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Throw the bone!  Lock up the lions!  And for goodness sake, don’t let Attila rip off your limbs. 

These are the sage words imparted to new museum security guard Larry Daley, played with a good balance of zaniness and seriousness by Ben Stiller. 

Judging from the television ads, it’s no secret what the movie is about – “history comes to life” at night at this museum.  For anyone who has ever walked through a natural history museum, with displays of people and animals in eerily evocative dioramas, this premise is compelling.  In fact, as soon as my second-grader saw a trailer for this film two months ago, it has been at the top of his “must see” list. 

What really captured his attention in the trailer was the skeletal T-rex “drinking” at a water fountain in the museum, quickly followed by the fossilized dinosaur taking off after Ben Stiller.  Yes, this fun scene is in the movie, but this T-rex is not what you think.  When Larry discovers what this “creature” is up to, the audience really giggled. 

Come to think of it, I think T-baby was my favorite come-to-life still-life character.  I also enjoyed Owen Wilson (uncredited – in a sizable supporting role) as a tiny, whiny cowboy – right up his alley.  I guess one has to be prepared for about half of Wilson’s and Stiller’s movies to feature them teaming up in some way.  Kind of like a 21st century Hope and Crosby. 

Speaking of old favorites, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs, as the retiring security guards, are a somewhat mysterious set of three musketeers (or is that grumpy old men?).  Their real motives start to be revealed about halfway through the film.  While it was fun to see three older, veteran actors teamed like that and integral to the plot, I found myself wishing for a bit more from their comedic dialogue.

I also wish (hey, it’s Christmas after all) that the film featured more female museum characters.  I seem to make this observation all the time, but gosh darn it, it’s true!  For women, the film features the supporting roles of Larry’s ex and the graduate student docent interested in Sacajawea.  But in the museum’s collection, other than a few background come-to-life figures milling about the halls of the museum, the only clear female figures are Sacajawea and the female lions.  Maybe the T-rex is a girl, maybe the mammoth is.  Most viewers won’t read them like that, because they’re so used to such figures being represented as male.  But then again, the past and history which represents it (such as museums) are testaments to male-centered culture, so the film’s representation is hardly surprising.

Once Night at the Museum got to a night at the museum, the fun begins.  While the first part of the film sets up Larry’s concerns as a divorced father of a 10-year-old son and the reasons why he would stick out the ensuing chaos, my 7-year-old son was soon impatient for the action to start.  Frankly, I think one or two of these early scenes could have been cut back a little and that might have done the trick.  By the way, look for Anne Meara, Stiller’s mother, as the employment agency rep who sends Larry to the museum for the security guard job.

At some point, I did find myself wondering how the parent-child story line was going to dovetail with the “living” museum, but it finally did.  Determination and team work win the day – or the night.

When the film finished, my son jumped up and said, “I’ve seen Night at the Museum!”  His favorite part?  Turns out it’s the same as mine.  Maybe Spot steals the show.  Good girl. Toss her a bone.

Night at the Museum is rated PG and could be scary for preschoolers, but its mix of action, humor, and intrigue seem appealing to school-age children.  It opens in theaters on December 22, 2006, for the holiday season.

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