“Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” abuses our cherished cultural treasures, and I don’t mean the Wright Brothers’ plane or Archie Bunker’s chair. How can one movie contain Ricky Gervais, Hank Azaria, Steve Coogan, Amy Adams, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Jay Baruchel and Craig Robinson while offering so very little in the way of laughs?
And on the subject of wasted talent, how is it that screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon can so brilliantly push comedy’s envelope on the small screen with “Reno 911!” while churning out horrifyingly inane movies like like “The Pacifier,” “Let’s Go to Prison” and the “Night at the Museum” films?
Everything about “Battle of the Smithsonian” feels phoned-in and ill-thought-out, beginning with its initial premise: One would think that giving up a job as a night watchman to become an inventor and CEO of one’s own gadget-producing company would be a happy ending, but for Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), it’s meant losing touch with all of his pals from the first movie, museum statues that come to life at night thanks to a magical Egyptian plate.
Because attendance is down at New York’s Museum of Natural History — which is somehow Larry’s fault for not visiting, although it’s never explained very well — all the exhibits are being boxed up and sent to the National Archives beneath the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Larry rushes to the capital after getting a phone call from tiny cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), who informs him that the mischievous capuchin monkey from the first movie has brought the plate with them and that it’s fallen into the hands of evil Egyptian king Kahmunrah (Azaria). The reincarnated pharaoh uses the plate to revive Napoleon (French actor-director Alain Chabat), Ivan the Terrible (Guest) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal). It’s up to Larry — with the help of Jedediah, roman soldier Octavius (Coogan) and the newly awakened Amelia Earhart (Adams) — to foil the scheme before dawn.
Even making allowances for a kids’ fantasy movie, the plotting here is terribly lazy. The archives are supposed to be secret and off-limits to the public, yet Larry’s young son (Jake Cherry) is able to guide him with maps he found on the internet. Later, entire windows are smashed without a single alarm going off, while the entire Smithsonian seems to have not a single night watchman.
To watch “Battle of the Smithsonian” is to see a series of comedic set-ups that have no pay-offs: Larry tries to outsmart Kahmunrah, Earhart uses outdated lingo, a collection of Einstein bobble-head dolls (Eugene Levy) lend a hand, the amulet brings art pieces like Rodin’s “Thinker” and Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” to life, but director Shawn Levy (the enemy of comedy responsible for the painful remakes of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “The Pink Panther”) can’t squeeze a laugh out of any of them.
Azaria’s channeling of Boris Karloff (via “Monster Mash” singer Bobby “Boris” Pickett) is amusing for a few minutes, and there’s a funny perspective gag surrounding the miniscule Octavius’ attempts to traverse the White House lawn, but I spent most of the film waiting for something, anything, amusing to transpire. Director Levy and the cast have apparently confused frenetics with wit, and while the movie never slows down to take a breath, speed does not equal humor.
While kids won’t be bored, they certainly won’t be particularly enthralled — if the under-12s at the screening I attended are any indication. Young audiences deserve better than this cluttered mess of a movie.
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