Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

night at the museum 2

The second installment of Night at the Museum does pretty much what one expects in a sequel. That is, it capitalizes on what made the first one financially, if not critically, successful and then replicates it with greater flair. That means an even more bloated cast of historical figures dashing through an even more grandiose playground while its main character gets even further lost in the chaos. Somehow, the retread takes flight and manages to stay aloft long enough to keep its audience amused.

What doesn’t work, however, is Ben Stiller’s night guard, Larry. In the two years since his first became a watchman, he’s finally made it big peddling useless inventions on paid TV, but his new job leaves him little time to visit his friends at the Museum of Natural History. As in the first movie, Larry functions more as the traffic cop than as the emotional center, and Stiller simply facilitates the action without adding much life to his stock everyman character. His son, whom he fought so hard to gain partial custody of, appears fleetingly, and there’s little attempt to expand on their relationship. Instead, the movie half-heartedly pushes, rather nudges, the work-obsessed Larry into a final act redemption.

When he learns that some of the exhibits will be transferred to deep storage in the National Archives, and replaced by holographic substitutes, he sadly accepts the changes as an inevitable mark of progress. He is only spurred into action when he receives a frantic phone call from Jedediah (Owen Wilson), a miniature Wild West cowboy, who rings with news that they are under attack from Pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), the older brother of Pharaoh Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek). The magical Egyptian tablet that animates the exhibits every night has accidentally been packed off to the Archives, and now the whole damn Smithsonian collection is coming to life.

If you love the venerable institution like I do, that’s a very exciting prospect. The creative possibilities multiply and give the new location gives the series a fresh injection. The National Air and Space Museum provides some adrenaline-filled sequences, and my inner air and space junkie watched with giddiness as the Tuskegee Airmen marched through the corridors and the Apollo Program was temporarily resurrected. Some of the best scenes though come out of the National Gallery of Art, including one where Larry and his new friend Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) crash into the famous photo of V-J Day celebrations in Times Square.

The pair must evade Kahmunrah, who plans on using the tablet to raise an army that will help him conquer the world. While he is busy aligning an axis of evil with Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat), and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), Larry and Amelia enlist the help of Abe Lincoln, who is just lounging about at his memorial. It’s fair to say that the film goes overboard with its attempt to reference anything and everything Smithsonian/D.C.-related that can fit into its vague narrative (though this movie makes a wicked drinking game for museum enthusiasts). Aside from Amelia and Kahmunrah, none of the characters gets enough screen time to give their parts much personality.

Of the two actors, Azaria makes a more lasting impression as a lisping, not very threatening bad guy. He’s evil enough to drive the plot but funny enough to ensure that the fate of the world is never in too much danger. The eternally effervescent Adams, meanwhile, gives the film and her restrained partner a cheery, feminist bounce. Chabat draws on caricature, as do almost all the actors, but he also draws in laughs. In the end, that and a sense of adventure are really all this film aim for. It’s not a history primer, but if it will get you to the museum or to the library, that’s not a bad accomplishment.

Released: 2009
Prod: Shawn Levy, Chris Columbus, Michael Barnathan
Dir: Shawn Levy
Writer: Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant
Cast: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat, Jon Bernthal, Steve Coogan, Mizuo Peck, Ricky Gervais, Bill Hader, Rami Malek, Patrick Gallagher, Jake Cherry, Eugene Levy, Jay Baruchel, Mindy Kaling, Keith Powell, Craig Robinson, Clint Howard, George Foreman, Shawn Levy, Jonah Hill, Ed Helms, Jonas Brothers, Brad Garrett
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

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