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Dustin Putman

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Night at the Museum:
Battle of the Smithsonian
2 Stars
Directed by Shawn Levy.
Cast: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Bill Hader, Jon Bernthal, Patrick Gallagher, Jake Cherry, Rami Malek, Mizuo Peck, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Mindy Kaling, George Foreman, Clint Howard; voices of Eugene Levy, Brad Garrett, Kevin Jonas, Joe Jonas, Nick Jonas.
2009 – 105 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for mild action and brief language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 21, 2009.
Upon release, 2006's "Night at the Museum" was a surprise box-office hit, a family fantasy that took audiences of a certain age by storm during the holiday season. Perhaps there just weren't enough choices out there for the younger demographic. The film was plodding as it searched to find a story or any sort of inherently enthralling conflict. The conceit was ace—a night watchman at New York's Museum of Natural History discovers that the exhibitions come alive once the building has been closed—but neither director Shawn Levy (2006's "The Pink Panther") nor screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (2007's "Reno 911!: Miami") could ever really figure out what to do with it.

The inevitable sequel, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," has brought back most of the creative team and cast members of the original. The new film actually has a plot this time, but it is not one that makes a heck of a lot of sense. No longer a museum security guard, Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has become a successful entrepreneur with his own business, Daley Devices, and a nice home. The joy in his life, however, has dissipated. When he makes a return visit to the under renovation Museum of Natural History, he discovers that most of his old, fake friends—among them, figurines Jedediah Smith (Luke Wilson) and Octavius (Steve Coogan), and life-size wax figure Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), girlfriend of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams)—are set to be shipped to storage in the Federal Archives of Washington, D.C.'s Smithsonian. Worse still, the magical golden tablet that brings them to life is not going with them, spelling the end of their lives. After the move has been made, Larry receives a startling phone call from Jedediah, who explains that one of the museum's capuchin monkeys stowawayed the tablet. The gang is well, but not safe, held captive by Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), the ancient king of Egypt. With the urging of young son Nicky (Jake Cherry), Larry books it to the country's capital to save his friends. This time, he has some help on his mission in the form of female pilot Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams).

One of the major lessons of "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" is summed up near the end: "The key to happiness is doing what you love, with the people you love." There is no doubt validity to this notion, but in Larry Daley's case, he is referring to hanging out for the rest of his days with museum pieces as the thing he wants most. Instead of traveling to the Smithsonian and breaking about three dozen laws for the benefit of saving the lives of artificial versions of historical figures, maybe he should get his head examined. When it all comes down to it, very little is at stake as the film grows chaotic and overblown, tossing in everything but the kitchen sink. Property is destroyed, museum windows are crashed through, a giant octopus splashes about in the National Mall's reflecting pool, and even the statue of Honest Abe at the Lincoln Memorial comes alive. With all this occurring, not a single D.C. resident seems to notice and nary a single police officer turns up to investigate the goings-on. Larry ultimately gets away with these criminal actions and faces no consequences. One could say this is just a movie, and to suspend disbelief, but that doesn't take away from the fact that the script has been written with zero logic in mind.

Thank goodness for Amy Adams (2008's "Doubt"), spunky and incandescent as Amelia Earhart. Ben Stiller (2008's "Tropic Thunder") and the rest of his slumming co-stars are clearly there for the paycheck, laughing themselves all the way to the bank. Adams, however, has taken what could have been a thankless, one-note role, and given her the sort of vibrance and bittersweet depth one would more likely expect from a straight drama. Shoehorning a romance between Amelia and Larry into the proceedings is a tad creepy, but it is the one element handled with welcome restraint, leading to the perfect conclusion to their relationship. Adams is so fun to watch that she almost makes up for the dopeyness surrounding her.

In a motion picture sorely deficient in genuine emotion, director Shawn Levy cooks up two particularly magical moments that suggest how much better the rest of the film could have been: Larry's and Amelia's whimsical nighttime flight over the Mall in an antique plane, and a final romantic scene between Larry and a museum patron (also Adams) who strikes an uncanny resemblance to Amelia. In scenes such as these, Stiller and Adams share such potent, swoon-worthy chemistry that the viewer wishes the movie were an adult love story rather than a disposable kid flick.

If forced to choose the superior film, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" would narrowly beat out its predecessor. The first "Night at the Museum," after all, didn't have Amy Adams onboard, or the admittedly imaginative bit where classic paintings come alive and interact with the outside world. The rest of the movie is strictly uninspired fodder for the six-to-ten set that will have most anyone older than that scratching their heads. Fantasies set in the real world require a little levity to counterbalance the flights of fancy. Stretching plausibility and coherence beyond its natural means, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" might as well be taking place on another planet.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman