Dir: Shawn Levy. US. 2009. 104 mins.
Hoping history repeats itself, Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian has studied what marketable qualities helped make the 2006 original such a box-office sensation and proceeded to amplify all those traits. More humour, more action, more stars, more effects – Battle Of The Smithsonian’s overkill approach has obvious pitfalls, but on the whole this pumped-up sequel proves to be a more satisfying kid-friendly action film while also finding room for a sweet love story.
Opening May 22 to coincide with the Memorial Day holiday, Battle Of The Smithsonian seeks to top the nearly $575m the first film collected worldwide over the 2006 Christmas season. This PG-rated Fox action-comedy seems destined for ample riches, but stiff competition from Terminator Salvation and, more directly, Up and Land Of The Lost will determine just how historic its grosses are.
Finding success as an inventor, Larry (Ben Stiller) has quit his lowly position as a museum security guard. But when the exhibits he befriended at his old job – who came to life at night because of a magic tablet – are boxed up and shipped from New York’s Museum of Natural History to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., he must come to their rescue after they’re taken prisoner by an evil Egyptian pharaoh (Hank Azaria).
Reprising their roles from the original film, director Shawn Levy and the writing team of Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon elect to tone down the first film’s father-son relationship for a more concentrated blast of action-adventure storytelling in the mode of the National Treasure and Indiana Jones franchises. As a result, Battle Of The Smithsonian might be too intense for younger children, but the action sequences are robustly executed without resorting to frenetic camera movement or choppy editing.
The first Night At The Museum derived much of its humour from both Larry’s discovery that the museum exhibits could come to life and the antic slapstick that ensued. Lessening the juvenile hi-jinks to a tolerable level, Smithsonian is more successful comedically, thanks largely to some well-defined new characters nicely played by Hank Azaria (as the fiendish pharaoh) and Amy Adams (as the spunky Amelia Earhart). Azaria gives his vainglorious villain a lisp and a deep-seated insecurity, which makes him broadly funny. As for Adams, she easily steals the film, providing a love interest for the uptight Larry and supplying Smithsonian with an endless supply of guileless charm.
In keeping with the more-is-more spirit of this sequel, Smithsonian tries for laughs at every conceivable juncture, creating as many clunkers as there are genuinely funny moments, but despite wasted performances from Jonah Hill and Christopher Guest, the film’s generous, crowd-pleasing style eventually becomes hard to resist.
As in the original film, Ben Stiller isn’t so much a proactive hero as he is the story’s harried centre responding frantically to the chaos around him. Unlike the first Museum, however, where he sometimes tried to pump up limp bits of comedy with overplaying, here he seems quite happy to let his co-stars have the best lines, which is good since he is surrounded by not just new characters but many of the participants from the first film. (Noticeably, though, Jake Cherry is barely evident as his son.)
This sequel may suffer from a glut of characters and side stories, but Smithsonian greatly benefits from a livelier pace, a wittier temperament and some top-flight effects, particularly in a sequence when Larry and Amelia must interact with (and occasionally dive into) several priceless works of art. Smithsonian would not qualify as a work of art itself, but like the movie’s seemingly inanimate statues, it’s got a lot of life inside it.
20th Century Fox
Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon