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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (Blu-ray)
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (Blu-ray)
Fox // PG // December 1, 2009 // Region A
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 8, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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Okay, okay...we're talking about a flick with a 44% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and I guess I'm supposed to be a smarmy online movie reviewer, so you're probably thinking that I'm gonna be grousing about how terrible Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is somewhere around here. The thing is, though...? I kinda liked it. What's supposed to pass for a plot seems like kind of an afterthought, and a bunch of the gags creak and groan, but I got so swept up in the charming performances and sheer spectacle of it all that I didn't have any trouble shrugging off everything it does wrong.

Battle of the Smithsonian is really just an excuse to send a hundred million dollars of CGI screaming across the screen for 105 minutes straight, but there's something close enough to a story bobbing around in here, so I guess I might as well rattle it off. It's been a couple of years since that...y'know, night at the museum, and Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has traded in his night security badge in favor of a corner office. See, Larry struck out on his own and has made a fortune as an inventor of gadgets like the glow-in-the-dark flashlight. 'Course, between wearing that CEO hat, hamming it up on infomercials, and the pressure cooker of corporate pitches, Larry's having a tough time squeezing his tyke into that daily routine, let alone palling around with a museumful of exhibits that come to life whenever the sun dives down. It's been months since Larry last trotted over to the Museum of Natural History to chat up Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), pint-sized cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), inch-high emperor Octavius (Steve Coogan), or that oversized and...kinda skeletal puppy dog of a T-Rex. When he does finally get around to paying 'em a visit, Larry finds out that most of his pals are being put in cold storage to make way for shiny new holographic exhibits. Some of the most iconic ones like Teddy Arr are sticking around, but the rest...? They'll be wax and plastic forever and ever, not to mention piled into wooden crates in some subterranean tomb hours away. Sure, they weren't really alive in the first place, but this is still pretty close to death for 'em.

Even with all the power and influence that comes with being an infomercial celebrity-slash-corporate bigwig, Larry can't nudge the museum's board in the other direction. Time is still marching on. ...but hey! He tried. Didn't work out. Time for another power-dinner-conference to hammer out the fine print for that meeting with Wal-Mart in the morning. Oops! But then Larry gets a frantic phone call from Jed that now all the exhibits in the Smithsonian have been brought to life, and there's a knockdown-dragout war in the archives down in its underbelly. Larry catches the next flight out to lend a hand, but before he can inch out the door with the Egyptian tablet, he winds up with a bunch of spears in his face and gets ensnared in that whole mess too. See, Egyptian not-king Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) wants to unleash his army of the dead upon the world, but they're locked behind that rocky gate a few levels up. Larry holds the key to unlocking the sinister forces that will ravage civilization as well know it...or, well, the key to unlocking that other key that'll unlock the badniks, but you get the general idea anyway. Kahmunrah has assembled a mwah-hah-hah-worthy alliance of evil: Ivan The Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon (Alain Chabat), and a black-and-white (!) Al Capone (Jon Bernthal). Larry has...well, Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) by his side, but that thrillseeking adventurer has enough moxie to take on a half-battalion of badniks all by herself.

You'd kinda expect a sequel to a mammoth blockbuster like Night at the Museum to be bigger than the original, and...yeah, it doesn't get a lot bigger than the Smithsonian. I mean, why settle for one measly museum when you can sprawl across nineteen? The scale of just about everything has been pumped up like Dig Dug on a Red Bull bender. Again...Smithsonian. The movie's teeming with cameos: Mindy Kaling, Jay Baruchel, Ricky Gervais, Craig Robinson, Keith Powell, George Foreman, The Jonas Brothers, Ed Helms, Jonah Hill, and Clint Howard, f'r instance. Pretty much everyone from the first movie pops up the second time around, and they're joined by an oversized octopus, The Thinker, a preening and borderline-incompetent General Custer (Bill Hader), and...oh, why not? The Lincoln Memorial! Not only do the exhibits scattered around the Smithsonian come to life, but so does the artwork, even offering up doorways to other worlds and making way for some devastatingly clever gags. Battle of the Smithsonian hardly ever stops long enough to catch its breath, divebombing from one startlingly elaborate visual effects spectacle to another. On one hand, the scale of these high-octane skirmishes is astonishing: dozens of characters squaring off at once, and if you dart your eyes around long enough, you'll see everything from a gigantic purple tentacle to Attilla the Hun to a rocketship to a bobblehead Einstein to a red balloon doggie. Not only are those sequences big, but they're pretty coherent too, and that's more than G.I. Joe or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen could've said this past summer.

A lot of the actors are only there long enough to lob out a few gags before leaping offscreen, but a few manage to make an impression. Bill Hader's turn as a vain, blustery, and hyperimpulsive General Custer is definitely a highlight. Battle of the Smithsonian doesn't really go for a big, finger-wagglingly scary villain, instead opting for a Karloffy, overenunciating Egyptian wannabe-pharaoh with a lisp and a penchant for rolling every one of his Rs as long as legally possible. Like pretty much everyone in front of the camera, Hank Azaria's clearly having a blast with the role, and that delirious amount of fun is infectious. The real scene-stealer, though, is Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart. That plucky, wide-eyed thirst for adventure, her '30s patter nicked straight out of the Hepburn/Tracy playbook, and...well, that jodhpur: I'm not sure if it's even conceivable to sit through Battle of the Smithsonian and not fall head-over-heels in love with her. Unerringly funny, charming, thrilling, and even able to catch me off-guard with an emotional wallop, Adams easily ranks up there as the single best thing about the movie, and I think this has pushed me over the edge into saying she's my favorite actress working today. Ben Stiller, meanwhile...? As the straight man, his job's really just to not get in the way. He's likeable enough and everything, and some of the physical comedy in particular is terrific. I can't say I was perched on the edge of my couch waiting to see if he's able to find true fulfillment in life or whatever, but that's okay; Larry definitely has a story arc, but Battle of the Smithsonian doesn't get too caught up in all that. The next colossal effects spectacle is never more than another few minutes off on the horizon anyway.

The bad...? Well, the actual story is kind of a mess. I never really had any interest in what was happening or why, but at least the effects and charming performances were great enough to keep me distracted. This isn't a family movie so much as a kids' flick, and its sense of humor is aimed pretty squarely at the six-year-old set. If you were born in...oh, let's go with the 20th century, a who-o-o-o-o-ole lot of its gags will sputter and stutter, and with that many Os and dashes, you know I mean it too. It's kinda funny that when I was watching Battle of the Smithsonian, I scribbled down in my notes that "when all else fails, cut to the monkey", and then in director Shawn Levy's audio commentary, he said the exact same thing word-for-word. Way, way too many closeups of a capuchin mugging to the camera for an easy, lazy laugh. There are some really clever, inspired setups, but "clever" doesn't always translate to "funny". Along with the more intensely visual gags, Battle of the Smithsonian is also keen on verbal sparring matches. A few of the improvs scattered around 'em are pretty great, but too many of these wind up feeling long, drawn-out, and agonizingly repetitive. Its message about doing what you love! is pretty clumsy, especially in the beginning when Larry is pretty much reviled by a bunch of insane wax figures come to life because he decided to chase his dream, even if he did wind up being kinda self-absorbed somewhere along the way. It's all followed by an epilogue that seems less-than-half-thought-out, but...whatever.

Is it kind of big and dumb? Yeah. Pandering towards the junior set instead of being a family movie in the truest sense of the word? Absolutely. Disposable and forgettable? Check and check. It's more of a spectacle than a movie, and even though there's plenty to gripe about Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, I was so swept up by its charm and that titanic sugar rush of fun that I really didn't mind. I don't think it's a flick I'd rush out to tear into myself, but yeah, I'd cheerfully sit down and watch Battle of the Smithsonian with one of my pint-sized relatives, and that's more than I can say for a lot of other movies. Take it for what it is, but...sure, Recommended.


Video
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian looks...well, pretty much like you'd expect a shiny, newly-minted, $150 million summer blockbuster to turn out in high-def. The scope image is ridiculously crisp and immaculately detailed, and it belts out a strong sense of depth and dimensionality throughout. Even with all of the digital wizardly sloshed around from start to finish, it's consistently warm and filmic as well. I couldn't spot any flaws at all: a faint and pleasantly grainy texture is still present, not showing any signs of being digitally smeared away, there aren't any hiccups in the compression, and no edge enhancement ever creeps in. I guess Fox was holding this Blu-ray disc back to make as big a splash as possible for the holidays, and Battle of the Smithsonian really is a terrific way to try out that new BD deck waiting under the Christmas tree.

Battle of the Smithsonian is presented on Blu-ray in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, and its AVC encode has plenty of room to stretch on this dual-layer platter.


Audio
Lugging around a 24-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio track, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian sounds even better than it looks. With all of the overcaffeinated adventure that the movie continually dishes out, the surrounds and subwoofer hardly ever let up. The spastic sequence in the Air and Space Museum in particular -- with Larry and Amelia soaring through the sky, propellers whirring from every direction, miniature planes divebombing, rockets blasting everywhere, and the badniks in hot pursuit -- is one of the first scenes I'd grab off the shelf to show off my home theater rig. Cupids fluttering from one channel to the next, the thick, resonant bass as that six-story Lincoln stomps his way out of the memorial...this is a really aggressive and consistently impressive soundtrack. Even lower-key sequences are fleshed out with the faint reverb of the museums' expansive halls. The only gripe I can really muster is that in the hyperkinetic climax, some of the chatter between Larry and Custer is marred by a faint hiss, but that's really nitpicking. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian sports a really spectacular sound design, and Fox has absolutely done it justice on Blu-ray.

Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 dubs in Spanish, French, and Portuguese. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), Spanish, Portuguese, Cantonese, and Mandarin.


Extras
Night of the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian serves up a different presentation of the movie on each of its three discs, including a DVD version and a digital copy for use on iTunes and Windows Media-powered devices. That means pretty much wherever you go or whatever hardware you happen to be staring at, you can probably be playing Battle of the Smithsonian on it.
  • Scavenger Hunt Mode: As Battle of the Smithsonian unspools, this game splashes four color-coded icons on the screen. Whenever you spot one of the objects in those bubbles in the movie, mash the corresponding button to add it to your collection. As the movie breezes along, these icons are refreshed with different objects. Lather, rinse, repeat for 105 minutes. I didn't play through Scavenger Hunt Mode from start to finish, but it's kind of neat to see a game like this that encourages kids to keep an Eagle eye on the screen instead of just challenging the reflexes. Oh, and there are two difficulty levels to choose from too: Easy and Hard.

  • Audio Commentaries: Battle of the Smithsonian churns out two audio commentaries, and first to bat is director Shawn Levy. This one's kind of dry and more self-congratulatory than most -- I think Levy's just a little wounded from so many people calling the franchise an empty effects spectacle that he makes it a point to mention over and over that he's only interested in the story and tone -- but it's an okay track anyway. He speaks at length about his philosophy of how a sequel ought to be approached as well as this franchise's exceptionally collaborative bent. I enjoyed hearing how various ideas evolved and took shape, taking inspiration from everything from the title of Amelia Earhart's autobiography to snippets of music he heard at a Lakers game. Levy also points out some of the exhibits in the background that I missed the first time through.

    'Course, with two Reno 911! alums in front of the mic, it kind of goes without saying that the other commentary with writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon is much more of a blast. This is a really leaned-back and quippy track, tearing off on extended riffs about a Smokey and the Bandit 2-inspired sequel with Larry eastbound and down with a wooly mammoth and even turning a chat about a research trip to the Smithsonian into raving about cloned frogs. The two of 'em talk about how much the movie changed from its very earliest drafts, including a lopped-out visit to the Hall of Presidents and a gaggle of new characters that didn't make the cut, and if you're wondering how screenwriters feel about having so much of their dialogue chucked out the window to make room for improv, that's fielded here too. They're not even a little bit stiff and serious about the whole thing -- they even laugh at some of the goofier ideas, including someone wondering why the solid gold Egyptian tablet seemingly weighs all of a pound and a half -- and if you wait around till the end credits, Garant and Lennon even get around to touching on their writing process. It's less insightful than Levy's commentary, but it's a heckuva lot more fun, and there's borderline-zero overlap between 'em.

  • The Curators of Comedy: Behind the Scenes of Night at the Museum 2 (28 min.; HD): Battle of the Smithsonian serves up a metric ton of featurettes, and the first of 'em takes a look at how to make a bigger, better sequel to a movie that was already pretty massive in the first place. Assembling an improv-heavy cast, building intricate reproductions of 5 of the Smithsonian's 19 museums, piling real rockets and jets along with faithful recreations into a shipyard standing in for the Air and Space Museum, and...whew! shutting down Central Park West to taxi a plane down the street. Along with marveling at the scale and fawning over what a good guy Shawn Levy is, the talking heads also point out how happy they are to be part of a movie that inspires kids to learn. Awww...

  • Directing 201: A Day in the Life of Director/Producer Shawn Levy (20 min.; HD): This video diary follows Shawn Levy around for one pretty eventful day of the shoot, but it casts a much wider net than you might expect, delving into the cinematography, stunt coordination, the visual effects chain, recording scratch dialogue, costume design, editing, and the role of an assistant director on-set. As Levy catches his breath darting from stage to stage, he shows off his storyboard binder, chats up the cast and crew, and even says goodbye to Steve Coogan as he polishes off his last shot of the movie. I really liked this featurette, and it strikes a great balance between a candid fly-on-the-wall approach while still helpfully explaining every step along the way.

  • Museum Magic: Entering the World of the Photograph (6 min.; HD): It's not just the exhibits that come roaring to life in Battle of the Smithsonian; the artwork does too, and one of the standout sequences in the movie sends Larry, Amelia, and a gaggle of bad guys in chase through Alfred Eisenstaedt's iconic VJ Day photo. This featurette touches on everything that went into recreating this black-and-white version of Times Square circa 1945: the research, the visual effects, and what's real and what was hammered out in the computer.

  • Secret Doors and Scientists: Behind the Scenes at The American Museum of Natural History (16 min.; HD): This guided tour starts off by highlighting off some of the real-life exhibits featured in the Night at the Museum franchise and also delves into the startling amount of research that's conducted on-site: everything from astronomy to freezing collections of tissue to classifying newly-discovered fish. There's even a quick chat with one of the actual night security guards.

  • Show Me the Monkey (18 min.; HD): Monkeytime! This block of three featurettes kicks off with "Monkey Business", which touches on how celebrity capuchin Crystal was trained to do so much work for Battle of the Smithsonian after running away with the original movie as well as the bond that was formed between her and Ben Stiller. Awww... It also introduces Squirt, a second capuchin who briefly stood in. "Primate Prima Donna" delves into the very different personalities between these two monkeys, and it's all rounded out by "The Secret Life of a Monkey Movie Star's Life Off-Camera", a peek at these pampered primates at home.

  • Phinding Pharaoh (5 min.; HD): Hank Azaria didn't land on that Karloff-inspired voice for Kahmunrah right off the bat, and this set of camera tests shows off some of the other voices he tried out, including a Cockney accent and a Suthern-fried boy fresh out of 'Bama.

  • Historical Confessions: Famous Last Words (6 min.; HD): This featurette picks up with Custer, Capone, Ivan the Terrible, and Napoleon -- all still in character, natch -- as they quip about their not-so-prestigious legacies, each other, and what it'll be like to turn into wax once the sun hops back over the horizon. Brief textual bios are sloshed around in here too.

  • Caveman Conversations: Survival of the Wittiest (4 min.; HD): Hey, this Blu-ray disc doesn't discriminate, and even the cavemen score their own interview, grunting, smashing, and...um, singing for four minutes straight. It's kind of a one-note joke, but I'm pretty sure that's the point.

  • The Jonas Brothers: Cherub Bootcamp (4 min.; HD): Just because the Jonas Bros. didn't physically appear in the movie doesn't mean they had it any easier than the rest of the cast. This featurette pulls back the curtain on the grueling boot camp that Shawn Levy subjected 'em to, from unflinchingly brutal lessons in flying to how to properly strum a harp. Ben Stiller lobs out his own sad tales of working under such a cruel taskmaster while he's at it.

  • Gangster Levy (2 min.; HD): One of the jokes that didn't quite make it in is that everything Wax Al Capone knows about the gangster lifestyle was picked up from the movie excerpts that play in a loop next to his exhibit. Shawn Levy and his A.D. dropped themselves into their own quick recreation of a '30s gangster flick as part of that display, and it plays in full in this extra. The actual footage clocks in around 30 seconds, and the rest is devoted to a high-def introduction by Shawn Levy.

  • Deleted Scenes (27 min.; HD): The badniks get fleshed out a lot more in this pile of deleted scenes, including Ivan the TerribleAwesome struggling with the whole English language thing, the bad guys trying to divvy up the world they're about to conquer, and Al Capone being miffed when he finds out he's gonna be a fat, bald guy pinched for tax evasion. Bill Hader also scores more of a chance to riff as General Custer, and there's also quite a bit of extra riffing with Jonah Hill and even some ::sniffles!:: additional dramatic stuff with Amy Adams. An alternate version of the ending also brings back a few of the characters from the original you might've thought they forgot.

  • Gag Reel (8 min.; HD): Battle of the Smithsonian's gag reel belts out a bunch of other riffs and improvised gags along with the usual uncontrollable bursts of laughter and fumbling around with props. Definitely a notch or two above average.

  • Fox Movie Channel Presents: Making a Scene (10 min.; SD): One of just two standard definition extras on this sprawling set, "Making a Scene" dives into how the manic sequence at the Air and Space Museum came together, including a heavy push for practical effects whenever possible as well as the idea of repurposing an information desk into mission control.

  • Fox Movie Channel Presents: World Premiere (5 min.; SD): The cast and crew are chatted up for a few minutes at Battle of the Smithsonian's premiere at the Air and Space Museum.

  • Trailers (HD): A gaggle of high-def trailers round out the extras, including...hey! one for Amelia, appropriately enough.

Even with three discs in tow, Battle of the Smithsonian comes packaged in a standard-size Blu-ray case, and it slides inside a glossy cardboard sleeve.


The Final Word
Okay, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian really is just an excuse to string together a bunch of gags and elaborate, hypercaffeinated visual effects sequences. That might sound like a jab, but Battle... is propelled by so much manic energy and the CGI really does make for such a dazzling effects spectacle that nothing else I could gripe about really matters all that much. Sure, a hefty stack of gags fall flat, a lot of the dialogue creaks along, and the story just kind of gets in the way, but Battle of the Smithsonian still manages to be a ridiculous amount of fun anyway. It's definitely a kids' movie more than anything else, but the scale and craftsmanship of the effects still managed to win me over, and even if I tried really, really hard, I don't think I could be more impressed by Hank Azaria and ::swoon!:: Amy Adams' exceptionally inspired turns here. This disc isn't a bad way to try out that shiny new Blu-ray player waiting under the Christmas tree either thanks to a slew of pretty terrific extras, glossy high-def video, and a first-rate soundtrack. Recommended.
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