May 21, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

ADVENTURE/COMEDY:

United States, 2009

U.S. Release Date:

2009-05-22

Running Length:

1:45

MPAA Classification:

PG (Mild Profanity, Cartoon Violence)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat, Jake Cherry

Director:

Shawn Levy

Screenplay:

Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon

Cinematography:

John Schwartzman

Music:

Alan Silvestri

U.S. Distributor:

20th Century Fox

Subtitles:

none


The best thing that can be said about the second Night at the Museum (which bears the unnecessarily long full title of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) is that it's harmless. And pointless. And dumb. This is a perfect example of a motion picture that exists exclusively because its predecessor made a lot of money. And, like most movies that fit into that category, the filmmakers have been careful not to change the formula. Keep potential viewers in their comfort zone. The hope is that those who enjoyed the first installment will appreciate the sequel. Well, I didn't like the first one. So what about the bigger budgeted, more hyped sequel? Well, I didn't hate it. I didn't feel passionately enough about it for such a loaded description. I tolerated it and occasionally wished I was watching Star Trek on the faux IMAX screen instead.

I'd love to be able to write a scintillating, penetrating review of Night at the Museum 2, but the truth is that I don't have much to day about the film. Why? Because there's nothing there. Nothing except special effects. The plot is laughable. There are no characters to speak of. The human actors are merely on hand to gawk at what the producers could buy for $150 million. Often, bad films will inspire me to spend 800 words ripping a movie to shreds. Good movies will often move me to write with unexpected eloquence. Night at the Museum 2 made me wish I'd stayed home and taken a nap.

Seeing the film in IMAX helps because all those special effects are bigger. (Sadly, because I saw this in a "new IMAX" venue, they weren't as big as they might have been.) But it also magnifies the production's numerous shortcomings. Why even bother with actors when computer-generated simulacrums would have been just as effective? It doesn't say a lot about a movie when the best scene is one featuring cameos by Oscar the Grouch and Darth Vader. (Vader doesn't get to speak; apparently James Earl Jones didnít need the paycheck.)

So what's the story? This time, the magical tablet that brings museum exhibits to life ends up at the Smithsonian. Realizing what can happen, security guard-turned-inventor Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) travels from New York to D.C. to prevent disaster. He's a little too late. The megalomaniacal Pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) is putting the finishing touches on his plans to take over the world, and he has recruited Napoleon (Alain Chabat), a black-and-white Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), and a surprisingly spineless and tapped-out Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest). Of course, Larry has allies as well, including the miniature Jedediah (Owen Wilson), who spends most of the movie trapped in an hour glass; Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), who becomes Larry's love interest; the Lincoln Memorial's giant Honest Abe (voice of Hank Azaria); and Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams). The goal seems to be to defeat Kahmunrah before dawn arrives and freezes him and his minions - after that happens, what fun would it be to take him down?

Ben Stiller put forth some effort in the first Night at the Museum; here he's just going through the motions, like almost everyone else. (That includes Jonah Hill, who makes an appearance in what may represent the movie's most excruciatingly annoying two minutes.) The exception is Amy Adams, who believes she's in a better movie than the one she actually is participating in. Watching her bubbly performance, we can occasionally imagine the same thing. Then she finishes her lines or the camera focuses on someone else and reality floods back in. I don't fault her for appearing in this movie. Hopefully, the nice paycheck will enable her to continue to make the kinds of smaller, quirky films that represent her specialty.

I suppose kids will enjoy Night at the Museum 2; it's pitched at those with approximately a first-grade education, and they will likely appreciate its limited roster of laudable qualities. Adults have the choice of either admiring the scenery or taking a nap. There's not much else worth doing. Certainly, paying attention to the story is an exercise in futility, but you're welcome to try...

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