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A Museum Piece Destined For Deep Storage
Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian (DVD)
Member Name: Hishyeness
Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian (DVD)
Date: 13/11/09, updated on 13/11/09 (134 review reads)
Advantages: Decent family film. Stand out performance by Hank Azaria.
Disadvantages: Humour is hit and miss. Not much of a plot.
A trip to Blockbuster with my wife usually turns into an epic negotiation. We both approach the counter with our respective choices, ready to do battle to choose which films we will take home that night. I usually champion thrillers, dramas and action films, while she usually plumps for rom coms, family films and corset busting period pieces.
After the necessary posturing, bluff and bluster, usually involving bribes such as toffee popcorn or a tub of Haagen Dazs, we usually manage to compromise. On this occasion, I agreed to make do without Public Enemy in favour of Night at The Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian.
I was reluctant, as I had fairly low expectations of the film - despite moderately enjoying the first one - as it didn't seem a likely candidate for a successful sequel (ironic given my "winning" choice was "X-Men Origins: Wolverine").
The film takes place two years after the original, with former night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) now a successful but workaholic entrepreneur, selling his weird and wonderful wares (glow in the dark flashlights, oversized dog bones and un-losable key chains - all of which have a connection to his exploits in the original film) on a television shopping channel.
However, his old friends - the many and varied exhibits back at the Museum of Natural History in New York where he worked - are facing an uncertain future after the museum is closed for renovations. Some are being shipped off to the Smithsonian for permanent storage in the underground archives, whilst others are remaining behind in New York.
Quite apart from friends being separated, the magic tablet of Ah Mun Rah - which animates the characters at sunset, is to stay in New York, meaning that those going to Washington will never come alive again. Although Larry wants to help, and tries to intercede on behalf of the exhibits, he is ultimately is unsuccessful in stopping the move.
Resigned to their fate, the exhibits go for a final traipse around the museum, clearly resenting Larry for abandoning them - and that appears to be that. However, a panicked phone call from the diminutive Jedediah Smith (played brilliantly by Owen Wilson) sets off a chain of events which sees Larry dashing off to DC to save his peripatetically animated friends from the clutches of new baddie Kah Mun Rah (the delightful Hank Azaria).
Ben Stiller reprises his role from the first film, but he doesn't really have to stretch his acting chops in this film. He plays the same character in a fair few of his films and although he does a professional job, there is more than a hint of "going through the motions" here.
In fact, his performance is so formulaic, that Hank Azaria craftily steals the film out from under what is ostensibly a Stiller vehicle. In a brilliant, over the top performance that had me laughing out loud more than once, Azaria proves to be - hands down - the best thing in this film. His portrayal of the comically over the top, self-obsessed and ever so slightly camp Egyptian Pharaoh Kah Mun Rah is best summed up by Wilson's character Jedediah:
"Two words come to mind when I hear you speak, weird and delusional. And If I had to pick a third... goofy. Just plain goofy..."
The film is chock full of cameos from established stars such as Robin Williams (Teddy Roosevelt), Steve Coogan (Octavian) and Ricky Gervais (Dr McPhee), all of whom add a bit of fun and flavour to the film. However, apart from the two leads (Azaria and Stiller) the other main character, played with feisty aplomb by the adorable Amy Adams, is Amelia Earhart - the legendary female flier who was the first woman to cross the Atlantic.
She plays a strong female role model - beautiful, courageous, opinionated, and gung-ho - but the jump first, look later attitude gets old fairly quickly. She also doubles as Stiller's love interest, but the less said about that the better as there is little chemistry between them and the whole relationship thing is more than a bit artificial.
Two other honourable mentions - the first to Bill Hader as the preening, narcissistic and clueless General Custer ("We're Americans, we don't plan! we do!... see that? Act first, think later!") , and the second to un-credited Jonah Hill (Seth from Superbad), as Brundon, the Smithsonian Security Guard - the confrontation between him and Stiller's Daley was fairly amusing - and was repeated between Stiller and Azaria later in the film to more comedic effect.
The characters are the movie, rather than the movie being something the characters are in. There is not really much of a plot - just lots of running around and making use of the central conceit of the film - that the museum can come to life because of a mystical Egyptian tablet.
Never is this more evident than in the animation of classic paintings and photographs by the likes of Warhol, Monet and Grant Wood's "American Gothic" - the latter supplying a pitchfork for one set piece between the good guys and the bad. It's a good concept, and the CGI and animation are done quite well, but it all seems so contrived.
Along with characters from the previous outing, we are treated to an "axis of evil" as Azaria's Kah Mun Rah collects baddies from throughout the ages (Ivan the (not so) Terrible, Napoleon (cue size and French jokes) and Al Capone (gangster cliché's anyone?)).
However, one of the comedic highlights is when Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street pitch up looking to join in with Kah Mun Rah's world domination plans. The Pharaoh confronts them both with "We're all full up in our Axis of Evil today. Sorry"- before turning his attention to Darth Vader, and superbly delivering the quote of the film:
"Is that you breathing? Because I can't hear myself think! There's too much going on here; you're asthmatic, you're a robot. And why the cape? Are we going to the opera? I don't think so..."
The comedy is hit and miss, with as much silliness as genuine humour. However, it works OK as a family film (with some simulated violence warranting the PG rating) and will keep both kids and adults mildly entertained throughout. It is paced fairly well, although to be frank, the 105 minute run time is probably about ten or fifteen minutes too long.
One thing the film does have going for it - as a learning tool - is the historical interest, with a great deal of information subtly presented to the audience throughout the film, with the Wright Brothers, Earhart's exploits, the Tuskegee Airmen, General Custer, and Teddy Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein amongst others making an appearance. If nothing else, we learn a great deal about the Smithsonian itself - where most of the action is based.
Sadly the sequel is not a patch on the original. It has its moments, but the plot is contrived, the set pieces fun but not leading anywhere, and the acting strictly by the numbers. In addition, without giving anything away, the ending (the last couple of minutes) is totally unnecessary and I challenge you not to roll your eyes at it.
The film is rescued by a stand out performance by Hank Azaria, otherwise it would have been a complete waste of time. As it is, it's a decent family film that I would not go out of my way to watch again. It's currently available on Amazon for £9.98, but seems destined for the bargain bin sooner rather than later.
It turns out my reservations at the DVD shop were justified - even my daughter fell asleep halfway through (well, to be fair, it WAS past her bedtime...).
© Hishyeness 2009
Summary: Should you buy it? No. Should you rent it? No. Should you wait for it to come on TV? Definitely...