A ‘Night’ to Remember
Battle of the Smithsonian an unexpected pleasure
By Kristen Page-Kirby
I have a hunch a lot of kids are going to want to hit the Smithsonian this summer.
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian picks up three years after the 2006 kiddie hit left off. Former night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has made it big with a number of infomercial-driven inventions. He’s rich! Rich, I tell you! And, because this is a movie, he’s lost touch with everything that makes him happy.
On a return visit to New York’s Museum of Natural History, he discovers that all of the old-fashioned exhibits are being packed away and replaced with high-tech holograms and such. This causes Larry consternation, since he knows that, thanks to an ancient Egyptian tablet, everything in the museum comes to life at night, only to freeze again by sunrise. But Larry’s not only seeing his friends (including Sacajewea [Mizuo Peck]), Atilla the Hun [Patrick Gallagher—which, Attilla the Hun is played by a guy named Patrick Gallagher?] and miniature cowboy Jedidiah [Owen Wilson]) packed in to be crated up with the Ark of the Covenant—the tablet of Ahkmenrah is staying in New York, so their boxed-in slumber will be eternal. The only figure who knows is Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), who’s slated to stay in New York.
So Larry heads down to DC to bring the figures back to the Big Apple, where they can experience worse urban blight, but with better pizza. Of course, something goes wrong—when the sun goes down and the tablet kicks in, everything hops to it. (Although it’s made very clear that the Smithsonian is a BUNCH of buildings—yay!—it’s never clear why the tablet works in all of them at once. Maybe because they’re all connected by underground tunnels in the movie? I don’t know.) The most worrisome is Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), the older brother of Ahkmenrah, the kid to whom the magic tablet rightfully belongs. Kahmunrah is the kind of villain that is just great for kids’ movies—he’s only a little evil, he has a clear objective (world domination, which he intends to achieve by teaming up with Al Capone [Jon Bernthal], Napoleon [Alain Chabat] and Ivan the Terrible. “It really translates to ‘Ivan the Awesome,’” plaintively argues Christopher Guest), he’s smart and he’s very, very funny. He also sounds a little like Stewie from “Family Guy,” but that’s beside the point. The point (and I do have one) is that Hank Azaria easily steals the show, striking a great balance between hilariously manic and vaguely menacing.
To defeat Ahkmenrah, Daley teams up with plenty of historical figures in various museum-esque incarnations, most notably Amy Adams’ Amelia Earhart. I’ve long been a fan of Adams ever since her short-lived stint on “The Office” and her Oscar-nominated turn in Junebug (which, FYI—don’t watch that movie while on maternity leave. Especially if you’re still pregnant and are being induced that same night.), and she doesn’t disappoint here. Speaking at a Nora Charles clip and living with a spirited sense of adventure, I hope she’s a character as attractive to little girls as Disney Princesses are. Earhart acts—she does the rescuing, she does the kissing, she comes up with the ideas. Not to the detriment of Larry—she’s not trying to take him down. She’s trying to help her side win, and to have fun. Not necessarily in that order. And when she and Larry part ways at the end of the film, it’s a moment that both actors give more weight than one might expect. She does have a slight tendency to get lost. Which is the kind of dark humor I heartily endorse.
Battle of the Smithsonian manages to walk the line between being smart without being esoteric, though not quite as well as, say, The Muppet Movie or Shrek. In the National Gallery, the art comes to life, so you see Jeff Koons’ balloon dog bouncing merrily down the hallway, while a Lichtenstein painting wipes tears from her comic-book eyes. The figures at the Air and Space Museum all move at a brisk, military clip (and the Wright brothers eat that old standby, Astronaut Ice Cream.) Beyond that, kids will have plenty of opportunities to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen, George Custer, and what pi has to do with a pyramid (which…I called my mom, who’s a math teacher, and she says that pi has nothing to do with a pyramid, which means the major puzzle in the movie has some explaining to do. Also, how does Custer get in the box with all of the other stuff? Because that’s never really explained, either.)
There is some violence in the movie, but it’s mostly either implied or slapstick—Capone carries around a tommy gun for most of the film, but never pulls the trigger. Various large animals come to life—a T. Rex, a giant octopus—but they’re never truly scary. There’s some kissing, but it’s all very chaste. And Abraham Lincoln complains either about pigeons and their incessant “cooing” or “pooing,” but I couldn’t quite hear which one it was. Naked cherubs appear, but they’re as blank between the legs as a Ken doll (though you do see their rear ends.) A very loud (but very cool, and by far the most visually interesting) scene at Air and Space has a LOT of rockets firing at the same time, and that would be SO COOL in IMAX, which is available at certain locations.
At a preview screening, we saw the teaser trailer for Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel and Aliens in the Attic, neither of which contained objectionable material. Except for one of them being called “The Squeakquel.”
Kristen Page-Kirby is the editor of Chesapeake Family magazine. She last reviewed Hannah Montana: The Movie.