I know my film critic bona fides won't be bolstered much by this admission, but I've now seen Night at the Museum about 60 times. Maybe more. It's an occupational hazard of having two children absolutely bonkers about a mugging Ben Stiller, a mischievous monkey and a dinosaur skeleton that plays fetch.
But I will also confess that repeated viewings of the 2006 blockbuster, which reaped more than $574 million in worldwide grosses, have only increased my admiration for it. It's not high art, by any stretch, but the movie was funny, good-natured and reasonably inventive. Its inevitable sequel, Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian, keeps that agreeable vibe humming right along, and it has the advantage of stellar comic turns by dependable clutch-hitters Hank Azaria and Amy Adams.
Night at the Museum director Shawn Levy and screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon return for this go-around, which finds Larry Daley (Stiller) having made the leap from night guard to entrepreneur. Once a down-on-his-luck divorced dad, he is now a thriving workaholic with little time for the American Museum of Natural History and its exhibits/residents who magically come to life each night.
In his absence, the museum has hit on hard times, and many of the artifacts -- including its wax figures of Sacagawea (Mizua Peck), Attila the Hunt (Patrick Gallagher) and the miniatures of Jed the cowboy (Owen Wilson) and Octavius the Roman general (Steve Coogan) -- are being shipped to Washington, D.C., for storing in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution.
Also sent to the Smithsonian, albeit inadvertently, is the Egyptian tablet of Ahkmenrah that literally breathes life into exhibits. Unfortunately for the new arrivals, the magical tablet animates a waxwork statute of a power-hungry Egyptian ruler, Kahmunrah. Played by Azaria with a Boris Karloff lisp, the surly pharaoh joins forces with three like-minded despots -- Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabot) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) -- to seek world domination, with the first step being the securing of the tablet.
Enter Larry, who must fly to Washington D.C., sneak into the cavernous archives and save the day. That's the plot in a nutshell, but it's enough for Battle of the Smithsonian to flit through the many possibilities of what would happen if the world's largest museum came to life. The filmmakers have a ball rifling through all sorts of fantasy scenarios, from a walking, talking Lincoln Memorial (voiced by Azaria) to a bunch of Einstein bobbleheads (voiced by Eugene Levy). Fast-paced and resolutely silly, the movie gallops toward the inevitable showdown between Larry's posse and the bad guys.
As you might suspect, no one could accuse this special effects-heavy flick of subtlety, but Battle of the Smithsonian wisely balances the gee-whiz stuff with some deft comic performances. Azaria tears into his role with gusto, transforming Kahmunrah into a wonderfully fey nemesis. Matching him is the always-luminous Adams, delightful here as Amelia Earhart, who quickly latches on to Larry and serves as a semi-romantic interest. A nice antidote to the leaden Earhart biopic that also came out this year, Adams makes the celebrated aviatress a character of 1930s' screwball comedy given to rapid-fire dialogue and colorful jargon. "We've been Jimmy-jacked!" she exclaims at one point when the heavies thwart her and Larry.
Also memorable is Jonah Hill, in a largely improvised scene, as a hostile Smithsonian night guard, and the Jonas brothers as serenading cherubs. Robin Williams dials down himself effectively as a bust of Theodore Roosevelt who is more than a bit jealous to learn of his fully-limbed version back at the American Museum of Natural History.
Granted, Battle of the Smithsonian doesn't tax itself much with consistency. Its understanding of history is a bit on the C- side. Bill Hader appears as a lovable General George Armstrong Custer, the filmmakers ignoring Custer's culpability in the near-genocide of American Indians as he joins forces with the picture's Sacagawea. In one of the more innovative sequences, Larry and Amelia literally travel through some iconic paintings and photographs -- the sailor kissing the nurse in Eisenstaedt's famous V-J Day photo is particularly inspired -- but the bit incorporates a number of works (American Gothic, Nighthawks, The Thinker) that are nowhere to be found at the Smithsonian. In the DVD commentary, director Levy admits that the movie initially flubbed Lincoln's celebrated quote that "a house divided against itself cannot stand." The writers had forgotten the "against itself" part and so a re-shoot was required.
But hey, Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian isn't about historical veracity. Nor is any movie that resorts to a man and a monkey exchanging slaps aiming for much in the way of emotional resonance. Its goal is simple: spectacle, laughs and all of it family-friendly. On those counts, this pleasantly frothy franchise delivers.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 screens, the picture boasts strong colors and reasonably sharp details. Aside from minor edge enhancement in a few spots, no complaints.
Tracks are available in 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 tracks in Spanish and French. Optional subtitles are in English and French. The audio is clear and sharp, but disappointingly unimaginative in its use of sound separation.
Two commentaries can be accessed on Disc One. The first is with director Levy, whose elephantine self-regard and self-congratulation might spark vertigo in some viewers. Almost dismissing the contributions of screenwriters Garant and Lennon, he lavishes praise on uncredited writers brought in to polish the script (Scott Frank is one name he mentions) and the cavalcade of stars who improvised their lines (he references "the now-infamous scene with Jonah Hill" -- huh?). Levy deserves credit for making a solid family entertainment, but his warbling about how "magical" and "wonder-filled" it is can be taxing.
Much better, and decidedly more modest, is a separate track featuring Garant and Lennon. The writers have a friendly, casual rapport and reveal some ideas that did not make the final version, such as a Hall of Presidents shtick and their original hope that the singing cherubs would be Sopranos-type wiseguys.
Rounding out the first disc is a 19-minute, 56-second featurette, The Curators of Comedy: Behind-the-Scenes of Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian. Typical promotional fare, it includes on-set interviews with cast and crew.
Any monkey enthusiasts in your home? If so, they will swoon over Disc Two, which boasts three bonuses that can be viewed separately or consecutively. Monkey Business focuses on the capuchin monkeys used in the flick, while Primate Prima Donnas covers similar territory with a sillier approach. The Secret Life of a Monkey Movie Star: Life Off Camera shows the capuchins exercising on treadmills and lounging around a swimming pool. Total running time for the three featurettes is just shy of 18 minutes.
If that's not enough to soothe your inner primate, the DVD also has Monkey Slap, which is a DVD-ROM game, and Able & Dexter's Flights of Fancy activity.
Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian has its detractors, but fans of the first movie won't be disappointed at this natural progression. Hank Azaria and Amy Adams join Ben Stiller and company for more inventive (if historically suspect) comic adventures, and the film is one of those rare family entertainments that doesn't devolve into scatological humor or sexually suggestive innuendo. Color me impressed.