If Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian were just a smart children's comedic adventure, its existence would make more sense. The screen is constantly filled with color and movement, except for the stoic "Washington D.C. landmarks at night" shots. The characters are mostly vapid and snapped into plot positions. Much of the film's progression is predictable, and is comfortable with being that. So the all-ages label only highlights these shortcomings, and is a prime example of why A-B-C storytelling isn't always worth adhering to so loyally. Despite all that, I have a hard time not recommending the flick, because it packs in enough genres, jokes, and set pieces that there really is something for anybody...just not enough for everybody.
Ben Stiller returns to his role as the ordinary Larry Daley, whose career has moved from night watchman to televised product-hawker, particularly for the "glow-in-the-dark flashlight," a conceptual item that makes many appearances after its initial introduction. Larry visits his old job at the Museum of Natural History, and old boss Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) tells Larry the majority of the exhibits he got along so well with in the previous movie are being shipped off to the Federal Archives beneath the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. These scenes do a good job of expositing the original film's fantastical concept without shoving it down your throat. When Larry soon finds out the exhibit-awakening gold tablet has been smuggled to the Smithsonian, the stakes are set.
Of course, Larry now goes to the Smithsonian, maneuvers his way inside, and finds an unbelievably large cast of characters in the midst of a struggle. Ahkmenrah's brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) wants the tablet to raise an underworld army, but doesn't know how to use it. Taking miniature Jebediah (Owen Wilson) hostage, Kahmunrah forces Larry to find the button combination that unlocks the tablet. Kahmunrah soon partners up with Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat), and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) as well. On Larry's side, there's Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), General Custer (Bill Hader), and a giant stone Abraham Lincoln (Hank Azaria). In between, there are another couple dozen figures and art pieces from history that come to life with comedic disregard. A whimsical climax is included. Taking into account the "Larry Daley figures out fun is more important than success" theme, the movie almost has too much going on to sum things up like this. But that doesn't make it complicated.
Shawn Levy is a very visual director, and captures the enormous scale of the film amiably. The first movie took its time setting up the action with the witty comedy and character introduction. The ante is raised this go around, though, and CGI-filled crane shots come in before the first half-hour is through. The score by Alan Silvestri is masterful, but almost distractingly so, because it takes over anytime there isn't a line-off between the more comedic actors in the cast. The score almost manages to make Ben Stiller walking down a Federal Archive hallway seem like Jason Bourne infiltrating the Capitol. It works fine with the swooping airplane shots and subverted battle sequences, but as epic as things can feel, this is still a movie that takes place in a museum with characters that won't be alive when the sun comes up. For Napoleon's height complex to be referred to in a film that clearly wants to be much bigger than it is, that's backwards irony. I should have been more impressed with the marriage of spectacle and comedy, but neither felt as authentic as it should have. Because the conflict was one that could easily solve itself by waiting for morning (except for the fact that Larry clearly cares for these artifacts), no risks felt like real risks, and the comedy felt out of place when things were supposed to be serious.
The energy and playfulness of the cast is where the film is most solid. Amy Adams is an adorable shitkicker as Earhart, and is so charming that she makes the oddball romantic strands of the plot seem plausible. It's a tad Lars and the Real Girl if you think about it, but she's just so damned charismatic and '40s starlet-ish. Robin Williams, Steve Coogan, and Owen Wilson have enjoyable role reprisals. Hader is fun. Jonah Hill makes a cameo as an unprofessional night guard that's all the more amusing because he can't use the F-word or make penis jokes. The Jonas brothers pop in as flying Cupid statues. Chabat, France's top comic actor, has great chemistry amongst those more familiar faces on screen. Hank Azaria proves why he has one of the best voices and senses of comic timing in all of entertainment. The jokes in the movie are written well, and those moments improvised by the cast are humorous for the most part. But there are so many of them, and that's not always the best thing.
Because the movie's fiction is so implausible, nitpicking the plot itself isn't necessary. Things move along as they seemingly would naturally, but the larger cues aren't very interesting. The tablet-code hunt is kind of a boring device, and the quest of raising an army that can't even leave the museum is pretty short-sighted as well. Larry Daley could literally fall asleep and when he wakes up, everything would be sort of normal. (The fact that Stiller plays the role this way is a nice touch, I'll give it that.) But none of that is important if you think the movie's main message is "One individual finds enjoyment from within rather than in the material world around him." In that respect, I suppose it works. So why so many visual effects artists? Because Alfred Einstein bobbleheads can't impart wisdom by themselves.
The screener I was sent had a faulty second disc, so I can't judge it accordingly, but there was more than enough on the first disc to sate me anyway.
There are two commentaries, one by director Shawn Levy, and the other by screenwriters Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, recognizably from The State and Reno 911. Levy's talk is robust with story-forming and location facts. He uses words like "film magic" and "whimsy" very freely. The writer commentary is as reliably goofy and joke-laden as these guys usually put on. Still, it was probably better than Levy's just because they didn't take themselves as seriously.
There is "The Curators of Comedy," a behind-the-scenes look at the movie. It doesn't justify the huge effects' places in the movie, but it certainly shows just how large an effort those effects commanded. From all the computer imagery to the gigantic practical Air and Space Museum set, a lot of people worked to make this thing look as good as it does. And to see them working with so many familiar aspects of American history is nostalgic fun. Much of the cast is featured here as well.
There are a couple of amusing deleted scenes, with optional commentary from Levy. One is a really long take of the Stiller-Jonah Hill scene, and the others feature the movie's villains in silly situations that were cut for time. There's a great gag reel that has a lot of Ricky Gervais making himself laugh. "Phinding Pharaoh" peeks into Hank Azaria's genius, and features screen tests Azaria filmed while testing a variety of voices for Kahmunrah. In the writer commentary, they mention Azaria filmed each scene twice, once serious and once silly, to give the editors more room in performance choice. That's professional shit right there. Lastly, besides trailers, is "Jonas Brothers in Cherub Bootcamp," a strange staged boot camp where Shawn Levy antagonizes the brothers by putting them through a method-acting boot camp where they're supposed to act like cherubs. It was kind of stupid, honestly. The Brothers Jonas and Levy are not at the forefront of comedy.
There may be greater and more numerous things on that second disc, but I'll never know. This movie is a decent rental for families, but should be avoided for single-viewer viewings. It was a solid effort, but I hope they don't end up at a Madame Tussauds wax museum in a third one.