by HELEN GEIB
I spent the latter part of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian pondering whether it was a bad film, or only an indifferent one of unfulfilled potential. Or is the question moot because any movie that squanders a clever premise, talented cast of comic actors, and admirable special effects is bad by definition?
Battle of the Smithsonian is a sequel to Night at the Museum (2006), which I would recommend without enthusiasm as pleasant family entertainment. Night at the Museum introduced regular-guy hero Larry (Ben Stiller), an impractical dreamer who takes a seemingly mindless job as night watchman at New York City’s Museum of Natural History. He quickly discovers that the exhibits come to life at night under the influence of an Egyptian pharaoh’s gold tablet, and spends the rest of the film taming the museum’s rowdy denizens, foiling a plot to steal the tablet, and repairing the burgeoning estrangement between him and his young son.
Battle of the Smithsonian is not exactly a carbon copy of the first film; the father-son relationship is perfunctorily acknowledged in a few early- and exceedingly awkwardly written- scenes, but does not figure into the story in any meaningful way. Otherwise, however, the second “Night at the Museum” movie is a re-play of the first, except bigger and stupider and noisier.
The super-sizing of the material begins with the change of scene. One modestly-scaled museum and a brief excursion into Central Park pale in comparison to a sprawling multi-museum campus, vast underground archives, and a visit to the Lincoln Monument. In other words, there’s way more acreage for the characters to chase each other around in. Many of the exhibits from the first film make the trip to the Smithsonian and there are a number of new exhibits introduced as well, leaving little time for character development or even much in the way of funny bits of business.
Particular plot points are also cranked up. In Night at the Museum, Larry is slapped repeatedly by a bad-tempered monkey. In Battle of the Smithsonian, Larry is simultaneously slapped repeatedly by two bad-tempered monkeys. The antagonists in the first film were three elderly security guards who wanted the tablet for its fountain of youth properties. This time around, the antagonists are Napoleon, Ivan the Terrible, and Al Capone and they want to use the tablet to take over the world.
The world within the film has no internal logic. “Human” exhibits think they are actually the people they represent, except when they don’t. Ones who shouldn’t be able to speak English aren’t able to, except when they are. Some of them seem to have some sort of undefined awareness of contemporary popular culture, current technology, the discovery of the American continents, and so on.
This was frustratingly true of Night at the Museum as well, but that film at least created a veneer of plausibility: everything had to be put back in order before sunrise; the museum was poor and could only afford one night guard and he controlled the security system; the guard’s job was to keep everybody (and everything) inside the building. The Museum of Natural History at night was a credibly self-contained world, a fantastical place hidden in plain sight.
The havoc wrought in Battle of the Smithsonian is not getting put right by sunrise, and for that matter, where did all the guards go? There are no security alarms in the Smithsonian? Nobody notices a plane crashing into a building and the statue of Lincoln taking a nighttime stroll? The sequel completely abandons any pretense of plausibility or sense.
This movie is no way to learn a little history. The “great men of history” types, a disparate lot that includes Einstein and Custer in addition to those I’ve already mentioned, are trivialized and caricatured. The “great women of history” are marginalized yet again, with Earhart and Sacajawea, the latter a welcome holdover from the first film, the only women in sight. While Amy Adams gives a performance of great vivacity and charm as Earhart, the real pioneering aviator didn’t accomplish what she did through pluck and high spirits.
Since I started this review by stating there was some room for doubt as to whether Battle of the Smithsonian is a bad film, I should close by giving credit to what is good in it. The special effects are impressive, and there is a lot of effects work in this movie. The Smithsonian galleries, especially the air and space hangar, make a fantastic backdrop to the action. The film does a lousy job of teaching history, but it may well boost tourism to the nation’s museum. The comedy duo of Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan, reprising their roles as miniatures, and Hank Azaria as a mummy with delusions of grandeur are very funny.