18 May 2007

Night at the Museum: Teaching Tool?

I'm a big proponent of using movies as teaching tools for children. Even a poor film can spark discussion with a child if the adult knows the right questions to ask and the right projects that can branch off watching a movie together. When I worked as a reading instructor for younger children, I emphasized with their parents how important reading with the child was; not just passively reading out loud, but prompting thinking about story and characters, engaging the child's mind with questions that relate to his or her own world. The same tactic works for movies: watching a film with your child in an active and engaging way can be wonderful experience for both youyou’re your child…even with a film that's, uhm, not that great.

(Note: this is a better activity done with home video. Try some of this "active viewing" in a movie theater and the guy behind you will toss his overpriced cup of Pepsi at your head.)

Therefore I recommend, with understandable reservations, the recent DVD release of Night at the Museum.

Confession time: I didn't think the film was horrible. Compared to a lot of family-fare that gets pushed out around the winter holidays, it's far superior to, say, The Cat in the Hat or Cheaper by the Dozen. It's definitely the best film yet directed by Shawn Levy, who I will always think of as the actor who played the kid with the big '80s hair in the lame horror flick Zombie Nightmare. (Sorry Shawn, you seem like a nice and funny guy in all your interviews, but once you've appeared in a film on Mystery Science Theater 3000, that's the image you permanently wear in my mind.) The effects are good, the cinematography by Pan's Labyrinth lensman Guillermo Navarro is fine work, and it has some genuine laughs without overplaying the comedy away from the chaos in the museum. For what wants to be, it isn't awful. Yes, truly the stuff of a five-star review, isn't it?

But in the middle of its slapstick silliness and cute moral father-n-son bonding, Night at the Museum might actually gets some children wondering about history and nature. Who are these Roman folks? Who was Attila the Hun? What's the big deal about the Easter Island statue? Why are the Civil War soldiers fighting with each other? What's the full story of Sacagawea? One of the characters in the story even encourages Ben Stiller to read up on his history so he can handle his job better. (He does most of it online, of course, but picks up a few books, like Attila the Hun for Dummies, one of the better visual gags). The film has a hundred starting places for discussions with children, all centering around the importance of museums in our culture.

So why not finish a viewing of Night at the Museum with a trip to the museum? Turn that silly holiday comedy into a learning obsession.

Okay, I'm down off my teacher's soapbox now.

Nitpicky Note to Filmmakers: Please remember that in Classical Latin that a "v" is pronounced like our "w." So the Roman Octavius that Steve Coogan plays should call himself "Oc-tay-WEE-us," not "Oct-tay-VEE-us." There had to have been somebody on the set who knew enough basic school Latin to tell you that.