Thursday, September 23, 2010

Night at the Museum: The Battle of the Smithsonian

Have you seen Night at the Museum?  In it, Ben Stiller plays a night watchman at a museum that contains the Golden Tablet of Akhmenrah, a magical ancient Egyptian artifact that somehow animates the displays at the museum, making them come to life at night.  That means that the stuffed Teddy Roosevelt, the dinosaur skeleton, the figures in miniature displays, etc.... all those exhibits become animated and come to life.  Are they people or things?  Let's just refer to them as exhibimations.  Hijinks ensued when the exhibimations did blah blah blah and everyone learned a valuable lesson.  And that lesson was, despite being alive only at night, the exhibimations are not, in fact, vampires.  Yet.  Is everybody caught up?  Too bad!

Time for the sequel!  After the events of Night at the Museum, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has moved on with his life, quitting his job as night watchman for the American Natural History Museum to become a wealthy and successful inventor/TV pitch man.  Just think of him as the ShamWow guy, minus the arrest record for hooker beating.  After several months of not visiting, Larry stops by the museum as it closes, only to find that it is really closing --- closing for renovations and upgrades; interactive holograms will replace many of the display pieces, with only a precious few staying behind.  Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), the museum director, tells Larry that the old exhibits will be shipped to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, where they will probably sit unseen in their basement archives for years.  And then McPhee leaves Larry in the closed museum, free to walk about on his own.  An interesting choice, I suppose.  Larry plays catch up with his old museum buddies, but is told confidentially by Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) that, unbeknownst to most of the exhibimations, the Golden Tablet of Akhmenrah will be staying in the Natural History Museum, along with Teddy and Akhmenrah; tragically, this will be the final night the Smithsonian-bound exhibimations will enjoy their unnatural nocturnal lives!  You can never trust exhibimations, though.  Larry's nemesis from the first film, the monkey Dexter, stole the Tablet and it was packed away with the stuff going to the Smithsonian.  The Tablet was fun in the relatively small Natural History Museum, but the Smithsonian is the world's largest museum.  Chaos and even more hijinks are assured!

You would think that hijinks would be enough for the movie (it was for the first one, after all), but sequels like to turn everything up a few notches.  Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian gives Larry a villain to defeat: the kindly Akhmenrah's brother, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria).  More warlike than his brother, Kahmunrah wants to use the Golden Tablet to open the Gate to the Underworld, where he will get an army that will conquer the world.  At least, during nighttime hours.  Will Larry defeat the evil voice actor, or will the third movie in the franchise be titled Night at the Museum: Surrender at Appomattox

Oftentimes, the success of a sequel depends on how much of its original cast returned.  In this way, Battle of the Smithsonian definitely succeeded.  Returning cast members include Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Mizuo Peck, and Brad Garrett (as a voice).  At the Smithsonian, we meet a whole new cast of characters, including Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), George Custer (Bill Hader), and Ivan the Terrible (Chrisopher Guest), along with Kahmunrah and a cast of dozens more.  Other noteworthy actors that pop up in bit parts include Jonah Hill, Eugene Levy (as a voice), the Jonas Brothers (as voices), Ed Helms, George Foreman, Craig Robinson, Clint Howard, Jay Baruchel, Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant.

The first Museum felt pretty busy, despite a cast that featured a lot of animals and cavemen; this one feels like it has ADD.  There are way too many recognizable actors playing way too many roles that get decent screen time, so none of the new characters (with the possible exception of Ameila Earhart) get developed at all.  Even Larry's motivation is hard to figure out this time around. Last time, Larry was trying to prove that he was not a loser to his son and ex-wife.  This time, his successful business makes him too busy for his son or a girlfriend.  He runs to the Smithsonian because the exhibimations are suddenly important to him again and because he knows the havoc they will wreak.  That's fine, but it doesn't have the emotional core that most family films strive for.

The acting in the movie was fine, if fairly basic.  Almost all of the characters were caricatures, so they're basically just a visual gag and maybe a few lines.  I'm not a Ben Stiller fan, but I didn't mind him in the first Museum; here, though, he comes across as cocky and not nearly as likable.   I don't understand why Hank Azaria can be cast in any ethnic role, but even if I was okay with him playing an Egyptian pharoh, I still wouldn't understand his lisp.  Really?  A lisp?  For that to work, you really have to put some effort in, like the forty or fifty jokes Monty Python did in Life of Brian.  This was just lazy.  Amy Adams is pretty, but her zany 1920s accent drove me nuts; if she didn't mention speakeasies, the jitterbug, dancing on a pole, or Calvin Coolidge, it's only because the lines got cut.  Adams is a likable actress, and her character was kind of appealing, but her voice was obnoxious.

Director Shawn Levy is not a terribly talented comedic director.  He does mostly family comedies, filled with lots of characters.  I get why he directed this, and he probably did a decent job with the script he was given.  The script was disappointing, though.  Written by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (of Reno: 911! fame), this film was just sight gag after sight gag.  These two are not the most consistent of screenwriters (see Herbie: Fully Loaded.  Or don't.), but they have definitely done better work.  This attempt comes across as shallow and simple, without the warmth that made adults forgive their children for making them sit through it.  Visually, this is a pretty good movie.  There are even several almost funny jokes.  Given the talent in this movie, though, it was a big disappointment, even for a family movie.

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