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MOVIE REVIEW

Stuff of children's imagination runs wild in 'Night at the Museum'

This probably falls under the category of too much information, but when I was a kid growing up in Boston, I used to have a recurring dream -- not quite a nightmare -- about getting locked in the old Museum of Science overnight. The dioramas would slowly come to life, and while I don't remember all the particulars, my neck still prickles when I think about the barn owl flapping its wings against the glass and the severed T. rex head swiveling its eyes my way.

Maybe I even managed to get the coins out of the optical-illusion goblet; who knows? My point is that I'm hardly unbiased when it comes to a movie called "Night at the Museum." The new family film is frenzied and gallumptious in ways typical to modern Hollywood, and the plot leaks buckets even for a kid-flick fantasy. But I'll say this -- the movie's fun, and it honors the secret promise dinosaur skeletons and stuffed critters offer to children: As soon as you turn your back, they move.

"Night" is essentially one big ad for New York's Museum of Natural History, but that's acceptable as product placements go. Ben Stiller plays Larry Daley, a dreamy Brooklyn schnook who gets a job as the museum's new night guard to convince his ex-wife (Kim Raver) and young son (Jake Cherry) he's dependable. What he doesn't know is that the whole place starts dancing the moment the sun sets.

Why? Does it matter? It has something to do with a magic amulet over in the Egyptian wing, but the upshot is that Larry has to deal with a frisky T. rex skeleton (it likes to play fetch), the beasts of the African veldt (including a capuchin monkey somewhat brighter than the hero), Attila and his Huns, a gum-obsessed Easter Island statue (voiced by Brad Garrett). Etcetera.

The production design is garish but delightful, and director Shawn Levy keeps filing oddities past in the background: faceless Civil War mannequins, Inuits, Pilgrims, clomping bronze explorers. Lewis and Clark spend every night arguing over which way to go.

Since it is the Museum of Natural History, its founder, Teddy Roosevelt, is on hand, played by Robin Williams with what counts for him as restraint and providing Larry with the character-building bully the script requires. (The ex- president has a mildly creepy crush on Mizuo Peck's Sacajawea, but every movie needs a love story, if only a waxen one.)

Better, Larry has to broker peace between two warring factions of itty-bitty historical figures: an Old West cowboy played by an uncredited Owen Wilson and the Roman emperor Octavius, played by Steve Coogan ("Tristram Shandy"). This pits American slacker-dude humor against snippy British bile in ways the routine script by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon ("Herbie Fully Loaded," "The Pacifier") doesn't leverage. But that's all right, since the actors more than compensate.

"Night at the Museum," in fact, is stuffed with smart performers doing graciously silly work, and all Levy has to do is manage traffic. (With a resume that includes the "Cheaper by the Dozen" remakes, he can at least do that.) Coogan's countryman Ricky Gervais, of the original "The Office," plays the twitty museum director, and his scenes are small marvels of inarticulate blither .

Best of all, the troika of retiring guards who advise Larry on his appointed nightly rounds include Bill Cobbs, Dick Van Dyke, and the unstoppable Mickey Rooney, who at this point resembles the world's oldest, angriest troll. Van Dyke is still limber enough to remind us of sitcom ottomans past, and Rooney just has to enter the frame and fix Stiller with beady eye to provoke helpless laughter.

The dreariest pieces are the life lessons Larry and son have to learn at the end. The goofy original kids' book by Milan Trenc didn't need them and neither does the movie. (The light romance between Stiller and Carla Gugino's fetching museum docent, on the other hand, is perfectly digestible.) "Night at the Museum" is nobody's idea of art, but it's an unexpectedly swell ride, most of all when it plays along the hazy line between a diorama and a child's lovely nightmares.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

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