May 21, 2009

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Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (PG)
Ben Stiller suits up for another wacky caper with museum exhibits that come to life in the family-friendly sequel Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

Larry Daley (Stiller), security guard at the natural history museum in New York City in the first movie, is now Larry Daley, inventor of “as seen on TV”-type products such as the glow-in-the-dark flashlight. This gadget success, however, has not left him a happy man. So though he is rolling in dough, he returns to the museum on occasional nights to visit his friends in the exhibits who come alive after sundown. Except when he arrives one night after learning that his latest invention is about to be sold at Walmart, he discovers that it’s been a while since he’s visited and most of the old exhibits — Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Octavius (Steve Coogan), the cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), that monkey — have been boxed up and are about to be sent to a government warehouse for cold storage next to other obsolete historical items and, probably, the Ark of the Covenant, from the look of the cavernous room full of crates.

Larry is sad but it’s not until the following night that he learns there’s trouble in the warehouse. It seems the monkey stole the enchanted Egyptian tablet that allows for all this nightly reanimation and now the entire Smithsonian is waking up nightly, including Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), an Egyptian ruler who wants to use the tablet to take over the world. Larry, who has received a call for help from the exhibits big and small, decides to head to Washington to save all the stuffed, wax and miniature historical figures.

In addition to the first movie characters and a few assorted Hank Azaria-voiced figures, the Smithsonian introduces supporting villains Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and Napoleon (Alain Chabat). And, for a little romance, Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) all full of can-do spunk and ridiculous early 20th-century slang.

The Smithsonian couldn’t have a better advertisement if it had created the movie itself. The movie shows off all the glories of the museum system, with art, the National Air and Science Museum and the pop culture exhibits all making enough of an appearance to have the kids asking for a trip to D.C. this summer. And, visually, it uses most of these things pretty well — it would be cool to have the various aeronautical exhibits come to life or to be able to jump into a famous piece of art. And with some awe comes plenty of excuse for the kind of zaniness required by a movie like this — there is, naturally, yet another monkey.

My biggest problem with Battle of the Smithsonian is the rat-a-tat snark-speak that fills every last scene. There’s the Ben Stiller meta-commentary about what’s going with in the scene, there’s the cliché-driven jokiness, there’s the monkeys. It’s not bad, per se; in fact I think it’s exactly the kind of humor that will delight those aged 5 to 12 who will likely be driving most of the traffic to this movie. But, while I found it sorta funny now (with the occasional groans thrown in), I could also imagine the dialogue being deeply unfunny two months from now when it is repeated for the infinite-th time by the children who so guffawed at it in the theater. It is a very sitcomy sense of humor and while I think most adults could sit through it all once, it will be unpleasant to have to relive it — the tur price of this nearly two hours of family entertainment. C+

Rated PG for mild action and brief language. Directed by Shawn Levy and written Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is an hour and 45 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, May 22. The film is distributed by 20th Century Fox.