Thursday, May 21, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian — Exhibits charm

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) • View trailer for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for harmless comedy violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.21.09
Buy DVD: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian • Buy Blu-Ray: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (Three-Disc Edition + Digital Copy + DVD) [Blu-ray]

Blend a museum of natural history, an uptight night watchman and a magical tablet that brings all the exhibits to life between dusk and dawn each day, and the result was $574 million in worldwide ticket sales.

One does not ignore numbers like that.
Although guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has his hands full, when all sorts
of chaos erupts in the Smithsonian's many galleries, he has the advantage
of resourceful assistance from the plucky Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams).

Happily, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is every bit as clever, charming and harmlessly exciting as its 2006 predecessor. Indeed, this sequel is even a bit better; the new setting  the many buildings housing the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  allows much freer rein for the already amusing premise.

And for once, all concerned have been content to more or less repeat their winning formula. This sophomore outing for Ben Stiller's high-strung Larry Daley doesn't sacrifice its heart on the altar of more mindless and destructive slapstick, a creatively bankrupt decision that plagues far too many comedy sequels.

No, this romp in the Smithsonian is just as sweet and heartfelt as its predecessor, which means it should make just as much money.

True, the gimmick is just as silly, as well; one cannot apply logic to either of these films. (I never cease to be amazed, for starters, by how many historical figures from various parts of the world return to life spouting flawless English.) You gotta just kick back and go with the flow, and Stiller and returning director Shawn Levy  along with returning scripters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon  make that pretty easy.

Larry, having survived and even profited from the events in the first film, has forsaken his unusual friends at New York's Museum of Natural History for a new career as an infomercial titan (a calling perceptively skewered in a short prologue). With a client list that's soon to include Wal-Mart, Larry hasn't found the time for those late-night visits to play fetch with the dinosaur skeleton, or observe the evolving friendship between the miniature cowboy, Jedediah (Owen Wilson), and the equally diminutive Roman centurion, Octavius (Steve Coogan).

Big mistake. While Larry hasn't been paying attention, most of the museum exhibits have been crated up, bound for permanent storage at the Smithsonian. The reason? Diminishing attendance, and the need to "juice up" the place with next-gen enhancements, much to the dismay of humorless museum director Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais, once again an understated howl in his few all-too-brief scenes).

Unfortunately, Jedediah, Octavius and the rest make this journey along with the magical tablet that animates them at sunset ... which proves to be a catastrophe in the much larger Smithsonian, because the first new individual thus revived is an ancient Egyptian named Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), who's in a particularly nasty mood after 3,000 years of slumber.

Having been denied what he felt was his rightful place on a throne back in the day, Kahmunrah sees the tablet as the means to correct that error; he therefore assembles some of the Smithsonian's nastier inhabitants  now-animated statues of Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon Bonaparte and Al Capone, each accompanied by scores of minions  and prepares to conquer the modern world.

Jedediah has time for only one panicked phone call to Larry  and we really can't worry about how the tiny cowboy might have managed that trick  before the line goes dead.

Suddenly reminded of what's really important in his life, Larry charges to the rescue, once again rushing into a crazed situation without even the glimmer of a plan ... much to the exasperation of his long-suffering son, Nicky (Jake Cherry, also making a welcome return).

As one would expect from its setting, the original film confined its magical stuff to the animals and people present in its various dioramas, along with a few crowd-pleasing oddities such as the dinosaur skeleton and a massive, gum-chewing Easter Island head. This new adventure, however, has a much larger playground: everything from an air and space museum to the massive Lincoln Memorial.

We get our first taste when Larry and his new friend  the plucky Amelia Earheart (Amy Adams)  stumble into a wing filled with paintings and photographs. The painted figures come to life within their frames, while the photographs become windows to their eras, much like Alice passing through the looking-glass. The magic does its stuff with familiar artworks by Edward Hopper, Roy Lichtenstein and many others.

Life Magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaudt's famous V-Day photo, "The Kiss," becomes a portal to a short interlude in vintage black-and-white. This sequence doesn't really advance the plot, but it's fun anyway ... and it also sets up a quick capper during the film's closing-credits crawl.

Kahmunrah's plans for world domination notwithstanding, it's hard to regard this guy as a serious threat, particularly since Azaria plays the part with a mincing lisp. He's more a token villain needed to drive a plot that forces Larry and Amelia from one end of the Smithsonian to the other, encountering newly animated exhibits around every corner.

A little of Stiller's patronizing haughtiness goes a long way, and I was relieved when Levy kept the actor in check during 2006's first film. The same is true here; indeed, Larry has been allowed to mature a bit, having learned some valuable lessons during his initial stint as a late-night security guard.

Most importantly, he's no longer the self-absorbed doofus who kept disappointing Nicky in the first film. The father/son dynamic is much healthier and happier here.

Although Larry hasn't quite blossomed into a full-blown action hero, he nonetheless gets off a few slick moves with his perfectly weighted and balanced flashlight, and he has a pretty good idea how to verbally tie Kahmunrah and his minions into perplexed knots. More than once.

That said, the value of Adams' considerable contribution cannot be overstated.

Just as she did in Enchanted, the enormously talented actress grounds the most improbable plot hiccups, playing even the silliest scenes with a goofy, good-natured charm that makes everything seem reasonable (and this film has a lot of "everything"). Amelia Earhart's presence as a stalwart, thrill-seeking heroine also helps; she makes Larry believe he can do anything, and also makes us believe the results.

For the most part, Levy keeps his inner adolescent at bay; we must remember that this is the director of the new Cheaper by the Dozen and Pink Panther flicks, none of which could be called an exercise in restraint. Levy goes off the rails only a few times, notably during a Three Stooges-esque face-slapping match involving Larry and two Capuchin monkeys (what, one wasn't enough?).

Production designer Claude Paré and visual effects supervisor Dan Deleeuw once again have a ball, bringing all these many people, animals and things to life; they also enjoy the benefit of being part of the first feature film team granted access to the actual Smithsonian complex. (Well ... parts of it, anyway. Rest assured, serious creative liberties have been taken!)

Alan Silvestri deftly complements the action with another lively score, and editors Dean and Don Zimmerman keep the pace brisk through the film's economical 105 minutes.

This Battle of the Smithsonian will be thoroughly enjoyed by all ages: perfect family-friendly entertainment for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.

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