Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)

As long as there is an audience, they will keep making Night at the Museum movies. Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, and Owen Wilson all return for the sequel to 2006’s blockbuster family film, with Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, and Bill Hader joining the all-star cast.

Night at the Museum 2 picks up two years after the end of the first film, and we now find our hero Larry (Stiller) as a successful inventor (I think his invention – a glow in the dark flashlight – is some kind of running gag from the first movie, but it’s all a little bit fuzzy to me). He’s left his job as a night-time security guard at New York’s Museum of Natural Science, but catches wind that the museum is re-vamping its exhibits in favour of new high-tech holograms. Larry goes to Washington, D.C. to rescue the old displays of historical figures (which all come alive at night) from the clutches of an evil Egyptian pharaoh, Kahmunrah (Azaria).

If you’ve seen Night at the Museum, you’ll know exactly what to expect from the sequel – a bumbling Ben Stiller caught in the mayhem of warring historical figures. I liked the first film more than I expected to, and while it doesn’t break any new ground, Battle of the Smithsonian is harmless enough. That being said, director Shawn Levy (known for such gems as The Pink Panther and Just Married) could have pushed things much further, rather than just lazily rehashing the first film.

Children are likely to love the mania and humour of this film, and for the rest of us, there are still a few things to like. At one point, Larry fakes his way into the underground storage area of the Smithsonian museum by posing as a security guard, and he runs into a real guard, “Brundon”, played by Jonah Hill. The two have a lengthy exchange, and while the deadpan humour may be lost on some of the younger viewers, it’s actually pretty funny. At another point, as Larry and Amelia Earhart race through the museum, they jump into one of the art gallery’s moving paintings. They find themselves briefly trapped in a war-era black and white painting, followed by their attackers. That segment of the film, though short, is really well done, and it’s so much more original and interesting than anything else in the entire film. It’s one of the moments that saved the film for me.

Another one of Battle of the Smithsonian‘s saving graces is the always delightful Amy Adams, as spunky Amelia Earhart. Her screwball performance feels like a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale franchise. Bill Hader, another new addition to the cast, plays General Custer, and though he has considerably less screen time, Hader makes the best of it, giving a typically charismatic performance. Ben Stiller is also charming, and his performance (as well as his chemistry with Adams) is likely to please both the kids and adults watching.

Though there are things that I like about the Battle of the Museum franchise, one of my major problems with it is that the idea of bringing historical figures into the modern world has been done so many times before. Take a film like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It’s not exactly a masterpiece, but they get a lot of humour from bringing their collection of historical figures back to the present, and watching them try to navigate today’s fast-paced world. Night at the Museum is mostly contained within the museum setting, and while they get interest from the characters reacting to each other, they largely miss out on the opportunity of having them deal with the fact that they’re in a world totally different from their own. I also remember a kid’s TV show (I think it was Canadian) called Mentors, where they brought historical figures to the present-day world. It was played more seriously, but it was both more educational and deeper (I remember one surprisingly stirring episode with Beethoven) than Night at the Museum has ever been.

If you’re looking for a harmless family movie, you can do a lot worse than Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian. But you can also do a lot better. It’s got some charismatic performances and memorable moments, but the filmmakers are obviously half-assing it. We see hints of something better than a typical franchise film, but ultimately, it feels a bit musty.

5/10

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