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.
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.
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.
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.
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.