REVIEW: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian [2009]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: PG | Runtime: 105 minutes | Release Date: May 22nd, 2009 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Shawn Levy
Writer(s): Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon

“Like a Golden Fleece”

While Night at the Museum is by no means a great film above family friendly theatrics, it did have heart. There was a story at its back—one steeped in magic that dealt with redemption and self-worth against insurmountable odds. A cool premise too wherein the exhibits at the Natural Museum of History come to life each night thanks to the golden tablet of Egyptian Akmenrah (Rami Malek), there was enough to entertain viewers of all ages with an eccentric stable of characters engaged in an exciting adventure plot firing on multiple levels. If anything it was a pleasant surprise to see screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant deliver more than their requisite jokes. When box office success demanded a sequel, however, they inevitably forgot this crucial part of its appeal and decided being silly was enough.

As a result, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian proves completely superficial as it ships our lovable characters to the titular Washington DC archives for unanimated storage until Dexter (Crystal the Monkey) steals the tablet for their journey. Story beats are introduced solely to advance the flimsy plot—Larry Daley’s (Ben Stiller) first act upon sneaking into the Smithsonian is to open up a large crate he should know didn’t come from New York to provide him a large octopus for dispatching enemies soon after. Forks in the road are created for tension and dropped once serving their purpose—I honestly want to know what happened with the business meeting Larry ignores to save the friends his newfound entrepreneurial fame allowed him to forget. And crucial mythological truths are glazed over when unsuitable for the gag.

This last one I cannot ignore because the whole basis of this world is to keep everyone inside or risk the magic disappearing. Not only does every character roam free without risk of being seen, but whenever Larry takes the tablet to other buildings or monuments their inhabitants come to life too. And even if Lennon, Garant, and director Shawn Levy thought bringing so many new characters into the fold would confuse us from looking at the specifics, they make it nearly impossible for everyone to return to their rightful place before sunrise when one must complete a flight lasting over an hour in ten minutes at the end. There’s no consistency in the laws so carefully drawn previously. If Larry only remembered how turning one square on the tablet stopped the magic, this whole battle could have been avoided.

But then there would have been even less of a plot than what’s made it onscreen. Don’t tell me it’s about Larry remembering who his friends are and what it means to have fun because the decision to blow off his meeting and fly to DC proves he learned this lesson five minutes in. No, Battle of the Smithsonian is nothing more than an episodic romp dealing with Akmenrah’s older brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) looking to use the tablet to open a doorway into the underworld so his army of hawk-men can return to wreak havoc on the world—something we could truly care less about. The characters we do care about either remained in New York or stay trapped in a crate for the duration so new, less interesting ones can take center stage in the shenanigans.

Don’t get me wrong: some are hilarious (Bill Hader‘s General Custer), adorable (the Einstein bobbleheads bouncing around uncontrollably), and straight-up cool in their computer effects (Jon Bernthal‘s Al Capone and henchmen rendered in a seamless, grainy black and white against everyone else’s vibrant colors). But they’re completely hollow beyond these surface details. They provide jokes and nothing more, something that had me laughing throughout despite my knowing how utterly shallow it all was. There are simply too many people to get involved and be relevant that everyone’s rendered two-dimensional and one-note. The only character able to equal Stiller’s level of importance to the tale is his new love interest Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), a miscalculation in itself considering we know they can never be together. It’s not bittersweetly romantic; it’s obnoxious, manipulative, and a waste of time.

The only way to enjoy this installment is to forget the first since it appears the filmmakers surely did. Allow them to utilize the central gimmick unencumbered by rules on a brand new menagerie of exhibits and bask in the hilarity that ensues. Because it is funny—Azaria’s lisp is a delight, Adams’ era-specific speech cute, and Owen Wilson‘s Jed as off-the-wall crazy as before. Just because it doesn’t add up to anything doesn’t mean it’s a complete failure when laughter can oftentimes prove enough. Prepare yourself for a ton of cameos, an excess of silliness, and a slew of plot points that stop dead in their tracks because this single night of adventure consists of enjoyable parts. It’s for kids: a broad comedy of short skits for lacking attention spans that they’ll love while you simply endure.

[1] Ben Stiller stars as Larry Daley and Amy Adams stars as Amelia Earhart in 20th Century Fox’s Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
[2] Steve Coogan stars as Octavius and Owen Wilson stars as Jedediah Smith in 20th Century Fox’s Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)
[3] Christopher Guest, Jon Bernthal and Alain Chabat in 20th Century Fox’s Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009). Photo credit by James Dittiger.

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