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Moving relics The exhibits come alive in 'A Night at the Museum'

The skeleton of the Tyrannosaurus Rex is the first.

As soon as the sun goes down, it starts to shiver and move and run around, begging to play "fetch" like the family Laborador retriever. That's 23 minutes into the "A Night at the Museum."

In no time at all, the stuffed woolly mammoth starts to act up. It's on the move, too. So are wax figures of Teddy Roosevelt and Attila the Hun.

In fact, after dark, every figure in the museum comes to life to pursue its, ahem, personal agenda, whatever that might be.

Roosevelt, for instance -- played by Robin Williams in an inspired bit of casting -- likes to ride off into the room with the Lewis and Clark exhibit to gaze longingly at Indian princess Sacajawea behind the glass (and a fine choice for repressed longing she is, too).

"A Night at the Museum" is a genuine family movie, that mythic creature that movie biz types fondly hope will prevail during the holidays but have a devil of a time actually concocting. In other words, it's a romp for the kids but tickles adult fancies too (unlike, say, "Eragon," which has a splendid-looking dragon but is, otherwise, kid stuff all the way).

I'll grant you most of the jokes in "A Night at the Museum" are mild, but the special effects are wild, and the basic idea -- from a children's book by Milan Trenc -- is irresistible.

Frankly, I've loved the idea of this movie since I first heard about it.

In an X-Box, iPod, Internet world, it's all too easy to assume even the hippest museum guilty of hopeless anachronism and entertainment malfeasance (preferring, instead, to instill -- oh, you know -- knowledge). So a movie fantasy about museum Easter Island statues that chew bubble gum -- and blow bubbles -- is so nicely pixilated that it scarcely matters that a two-thirds of the gags are toothless Hollywood industrialism.

Even there, though, you have to give director Shawn Levy his props for the occasional ultra-droll inspiration. Ricky Gervais, for instance, plays the Museum's director, a fellow with a disconcerting way of ending all his sentences about eight or nine words short of where they were obviously headed. As creator of the BBC's version of "The Office," Gervais is, along with Sacha Baron Cohen, one of the Transatlantic wunderkinder of comedy. His little bit of shtick is, at first, only marginally amusing in "A Night at the Museum." The more the movie carries it forth, though, the funnier it gets.

By the time the movie was winding down, I loved it.

The story? Oh, that. Ben Stiller plays an over-inventive dreamer whose son is living with his ex-wife and her second husband, a fellow whose belt is festooned with multiple cell phones. He is forced, finally, to take a real job for the first time in his life -- night watchman at the Museum of Natural History (the employment counselor who steers him there is played by Stiller's real mother, comedienne Anne Meara, who, if you ask me, should take a lot more movie and TV gigs).

There, he discovers that downsizing has ravaged the superannuated night crew, played by Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs -- three actors whose ages, if totalled up, exceed the age of the United States of America. (The pleasure of seeing Rooney again is even greater than the pleasure of seeing Anne Meara.) The old boys have their own agenda.

The script is nothing special, to understate the case. By dint of imaginative zest and FX the movie may be.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

***

A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM

3 stars (out of 4)

STARRING: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Carla Gugino, Owen Wilson (unbilled), Ricky Gervaise, Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney

DIRECTOR: Shawn Levy

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes

RATING: PG for "mild action, language and brief rude humor."

THE LOWDOWN: A night watchman discovers that all the exhibits in New York's Museum of Natural History come alive at night.

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