Night at the Museum is a high-concept kiddie comedy that works because it makes its jokes quickly, keeps them coming and then has the smarts to wrap everything up without too much fuss.
There's some sentiment here, and some big action scenes too, but they're judiciously parceled out and never bog it down. Director Shawn Levy's previous movie was the ghastly Pink Panther remake; he's far more sprightly here.
Having Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson bantering back and forth doesn't hurt, either. Nor do the top-notch special effects: If you ever wanted to see a T. rex skeleton play fetch with a bone, this is your movie.
Busy Hollywood types making movies for children often find therapy in writing stories about hapless dads who have to reconnect with their kids. That's the theme here, as Mr. Stiller plays a divorced dad who, desperate for work and respect, takes a job as night security man at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
The retiring old-time guards (Dick Van [filtered word], Bill Cobs and Mickey Rooney) know something he doesn't, though. That's the fact that the exhibits come to life at night, whether it's the dino skeleton, Attila and his Huns, various cavemen, Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Sacagawea, hungry lions or a monkey that likes to steal keys.
Speaking of stealing, Mr. Rooney is still bounding away with scene after scene, 60 years after his first Andy Hardy movie, yapping out lines that shouldn't be funny - "Keep a lid on it, Butterscotch," for example - and getting chuckles out of it every time.
It's chaos in the museum, but soon Mr. Stiller has tamed the T. rex, offered therapy to Attila and consoled Confederate soldiers: Hey, you lost the war, but "you guys get the Allman Brothers and NASCAR, so chill." He might even accomplish a more amazing feat than all that, which is catching the eyes of a rather astonishingly curvy museum docent played by Carla Gugino, who doesn't need special effects to impress.
Owen Wilson, meanwhile, does his Owen Wilson thing well as a 3-inch-tall cowboy from a Western diorama; his nemesis is an equally tiny Roman soldier played by Steve Coogan. Kids will like it when they drive a remote-control Hummer, and I chuckled at a sight gag involving Mr. Stiller tied down on train tracks with a train fast approaching. You probably will, too.
'NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM'
THE VERDICT: *** out of ****
WHO'S IT FOR? It's no classic, but it's fun for kids.
CREDITS: Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Robin Williams and Dick Van [filtered word]; directed by Shawn Levy, based on the book by Milan Trenc
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour, 48 minutes
FAMILY GUIDE: PG, for action scenes, mild rude humor