Tuesday, May 26, 2009

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

The first Night at the Museum was a dull, sad experience as it was nothing less than a feature-length death of a great concept, killed by neglect. Sure, Ben Stiller stood amiably in the center of crazy CGI gewgaws as New York City’s Museum of Natural History came to life after nightfall, but it was repetitive, never clever, and just plain boring. It was a tacky mess of bad jokes and unearned sentiment, but it made a lot of money so here we are with Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. In this new picture, there are some nice visual moments and some genuinely funny moments, but it’s also louder, longer, and more nonsensical and unnecessary than last time.

This time around, Stiller follows most of the characters from the first movie (including a monkey, Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan) to the Smithsonian where they are being terrorized at night by a very mean ancient Egyptian pharaoh. Hank Azaria is very funny as the pharaoh. He steps through his scenes with a goofy, lisping accent and speaks through it with such oddball intensity, that I couldn’t help but be amused. Unfortunately, he’s the villain, and I just couldn’t take him seriously as a threat. At one point he takes one of our wax-figure heroes and threatens to bury the figure in sand if Stiller doesn’t do as he’s told. So off Stiller goes, worrying about this wax figure and all I could think was: he’s a wax figure! He won’t suffocate! This led me into a larger, more fundamental problem I was having with the movie. I didn’t understand why we were supposed to care about these statues and figurines. Just because they can move and talk doesn’t make them human. Why does Stiller care and why should I? This sort of thing can really work (see: the Toy Story films) but here is a sad, sorry case of botched anthropomorphism.

There’s a host of very funny people here, too, but they don’t have time to create anything really funny as they just dash about, shouting a line or two here and there. Amy Adams is her usual brand of charming as an Amelia Earhart statue that struts through the picture spitting out roughly 30s-style screwball-comedy lines. Christopher Guest and Bill Hader have some funny moments as Ivan the Terrible and General Custer, respectively. Jonah Hill, Mindy Kaling, and Ricky Gervais, as well as the Jonas brothers as singing cherubs, each get a brief scene to shine, but too much of the movie is given over to a totally bland Ben Stiller performance and uninspired plotting that sends characters everywhere and nowhere at the same time while seeming to change its fantasy rules whenever it suits the filmmakers. Early on, much is made of the Egyptian tablet that causes the museum to come to life, and yet (little spoiler) the Smithsonian creatures stay very much alive when Stiller flies off at the end with tablet in hand.

This thing is a mess, woefully inconsistent, chaotic, and overlong. I laughed a little, and found some of the visual tricks clever (there’s a neat moment involving a hall of artwork), but even for lightweight summer entertainment this is junky and ill conceived, an uncalled for expansion of a what was a poor property to begin with. At times, when I lost myself in laughter at Azaria's performance, I could almost forgive the movie. But every time I stopped laughing, I crashed back into reality, wondering when the movie would ever end. And yet, I still think the idea of all the things in a museum coming to life is a great concept, just not in the hands of the people who've been inflicting these upon us.

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