Monday, March 22, 2010

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

"Crimey, we've been jimmy-jacked!" Luckily, for fans of the prequel to this action-packed, antic comedy, this is not the case (jimmy-jacked being "screwed," by the way). Ben Stiller (Meet the Parents, Tropic Thunder) returns as Larry Daley, who's given up the uniform as night guard at the Museum of Natural History for the driver's seat at Daley Industries, a corporation that sells glow-in-the-dark flashlights, unlosable key rings, and over-sized dog bones. While visiting his old haunt, Larry learns that the exhibits are taking the boot for interactive holograms and shipped to the federal archives of the Smithsonian Institute. What's not being shipped, however, is the tablet of Ahkmanrah, an ancient device that bears the power to bring all the exhibits to life after sunset. When the tablet is stolen by Dexter, the capuchin monkey, and shipped to Washington, Larry is shocked to discover that not only have the exhibits come to life (in the biggest museum in the world), but the evil pharoah, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), is intent on using the tablet to conquer the world by opening the gates of the Underworld. With the help of Amelia Earhart, Teddy Roosevelt, General George Custer, and Sacagawea (Amy Adams, Robin Williams, Bill Hader, and Mizuo Peck), Larry must keep the tablet out of Kahmunrah's reach by outsmarting his daunting trio of cronies: Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Al Capone (Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat, and John Bernthal). What ensues is an epic and hilarious showdown as the biggest names in history clash swords and tentacles in a mind-blowing adventure that is incredibly, exceptionally, and (literally) larger than life.

When he wasn't selling any color model T, as long as it was black, Henry Ford, with the grace of Tacitus and the air of Caesar (Sid, not Julius), amused his clientele with the observation that "History is bunk." "Bunk" meaning traditional and not worth a "tinker's damn" to the present day. Ford's aversion for the past may have been due to the sheer volume of names, dates, events and customs verging on a deluge of confused and dubious data. Unfortunately, Battle of the Smithsonian has the ill luck to be swept up in the tide. While not being completely and utterly "bunk," the film suffers from having one too many museums, leading to a thousand too many cast members, who might be called extras if everyone weren't supposed to be someone famous. In addition to the original cast, audiences must process the Thinker, the Ballerina, Aphrodite, the Tuskegee Airman, the Wright Brothers, Abraham Lincoln, American Gothic, three Cupids, six Einsteins, and - (insert deep breath here) - a full-blown NASA launch crew.

The initial "Oh my God!" reaction (which surfaces upon seeing Hank Azaria in a tunic with a lisp) loses all enthusiasm after a perky introduction to Amy Adams, whose gutsy performance as Amelia Earhart is the true high-light of this quirky, but teeming film. The rest of the characters, with the exception of the central supporting cast, come off as little more than a confused mob of tricorns, ushankas and three-pieced suits. Slapstick comedy (a hallmark of any Stiller film) has its fine points with funny man Jonah Hill and Simpson's favorite, Hank Azaria, playing Abbot to Stiller's passive-agressive Costello, but quickly becomes overbearing, verging on corny. On the money, Battle of the Smithsonian is a charming and entertaining family flick, but one that is sure to go down in history as a side-show act for a number of high-profile actors in period garb.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

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