Friday, May 22, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

There are times when sequels, contrary to tradition, really can top the original. And "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" (Fox) is one such happy exception.

This enjoyable romp, again directed by Shawn Levy, takes the ex-Museum of Natural History night guard Larry (Ben Stiller) on a completely new adventure in the nation's capital.

Now a successful inventor of infomercial devices, Larry returns to the museum. His humorless ex-boss, Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), informs him that the exhibition figures, which magically came to life in the first movie, are now considered out of date as the museum is about to be modernized, and have been shipped to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington for storage.

Determined to restore his friends to their rightful place in Gotham, Larry journeys south and slips into the Smithsonian's warehouse, after appropriating a guard's ID -- an amusing exchange with unbilled Jonah Hill.

While trying to free his buddies -- cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and the Roman general Octavius (Steve Coogan) -- from their packing crates, he inadvertently brings back to life Egyptian leader Kahmunrah (a very funny, lisping Hank Azaria). The pharaoh hopes to resurrect his ancient army and take over the world, but he needs the giant gold keypad that Larry has in hand to unleash those troops.

It then becomes a face-off between Larry and his friends, now including a reanimated aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) and General Custer (Bill Hader) -- the latter hoping for a comeback after his defeat at the Little Big Horn -- and the power-hungry Kahmunrah, who's formed a posse with historical baddies Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal).

Along the way, the iconic paintings and statues of the Smithsonian, like Rodin's "The Thinker" and one of Degas' dancers, come to life. In one clever sequence, Larry and Earhart jump into the frame of "The Kiss," Alfred Eisenstaedt's black-and-white V-J Day photo. The giant figure of Abraham Lincoln from the memorial, Albert Einstein, and the Tuskegee Airmen all get into the action which also plays out at the Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian Castle.

There's the suggestion of a sweet, platonic romance between Larry and Earhart, though obviously, nothing can come of it, as she will return to her state as a wax statue at sunrise.

The actors from the original film have their characters down pat and make a welcome return, while the newbies are all pluses, including Chabat as a height-obsessed, hopelessly romantic Napoleon, and most especially Adams, proving again what a deft comic talent she is. Transcending caricature, she makes a spunky, likable Katharine Hepburn sort of heroine, her dialogue peppered with delightful 1930s slang, as when she spurs Larry to show some "moxie."

It's refreshing to see so many mainstream stars in a family-friendly film where the humor never becomes smutty. Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have written the screenplay as they did the first, an adaptation of Milan Trenc's children's book.

Kids will love the gags and clever special effects. Teeny Octavius confronted by what, to him, is a gargantuan squirrel is one choice sequence. Adults will appreciate the wit of those iconic paintings and sculptures springing to amazing life.

And besides providing a painless incentive to kids to learn more about history and art, the film imparts good lessons about teamwork, the overriding moral espoused by Larry near the end of the film: "The key to happiness is doing what you love with people you love."

The film also will be screened in Imax Experience technology. Print this post


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