Since Battle of the Smithsonian is the sequel to the popular film Night at the Museum, I should start this review by saying that I really enjoyed the first film and own a copy of it. My kids really like it too and we’ve watched it at least a dozen times.
The core storyline in the first film was that divorced father Larry Daley (played by Ben Stiller) has a poor relationship with his son Nicky Daley (played by Jake Cherry) and when he ends up taking a job as a night guard at a museum, Nicky is embarrassed and disappointed. Once the people, puppets, sculptures and even animals in the museum come to life, Daley brings his son to the museum and after some missteps his son is impressed and the film ends with their relationship restored. A nice, straightforward story arc with a fun background chaos of a living museum.
By contrast, Battle of the Smithsonian is lacking any sort of overarching story. Well, maybe there’s one, but if it is, the story is that Daley’s now a successful entrepreneurial businessman and as the film proceeds he learns that doing what he loves with people he loves is more important, but really, a far less engaging story.
I did enjoy Battle of the Smithsonian as a straightforward entertainment, even given these problems, but, please, read on…
There are other elements that made the first film really great, including the wonderful role of Cecil, played by a lively Dick Van Dyke, and the romantic relationship between Teddy Roosevelt (played by Robin Williams) and Sacajawea (played by Mizuo Peck), elements that are just completely lacking in the sequel.
Generally I have to admit that it’s hard to pull off a sequel and I’m not the only critic to believe that there’s actually a curse associated with sequels, a curse that causes them to be lame and less enjoyable than the original. Not always, but quite often. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t successful (for example, each of the Pirates of the Caribbean films was successively worse, culminating in the baffling At World’s End, but the entire series did well at the box office).
The storyline of Battle of the Smithsonian is that the Museum of Natural History is being renovated and all the characters that had come to life in the first film are being boxed up and shipped to the National Archives for permanent storage. The National Archives is located under the Smithsonian complex in Washington DC.
The first part of the film, when we see Stiller as a highly successful businessman (with an amusing cameo by George Foreman) and then visiting the museum before everything’s shipped to DC, is quite fun and has perhaps some of the best scenes in the movie. The characters are all sent to the Smithsonian and Stiller gets a phone call from Jedediah Smith (played by Owen Wilson) saying that they’re under attack and need his help. Even within the context of the movie, Stiller’s a bit confused how a 3″ tall person can dial a phone, but this is definitely a film where his – and our – mantra needs to be “suspension of disbelief”.
Stiller flies to DC and with the help of his son’s directions via cell phone, finds his way into the secure areas of the Archives and into the basement storage areas. At this point, the film is still going well, but somewhere around when all the characters come to life the film switches to a series of sight gags and a very loose narrative story. Characters appear and are then discarded as the story progresses, and the most delightful characters from the first film make token appearances, supplanted by a crop of new characters, notably the chief bad guy Kahmunrah (played by Hank Azaria).
Ahkmenrah (played by Rami Malek) is one of the pivotal characters from the first film and as an example of what’s wrong with Battle of the Smithsonian, it introduces a jealous older brother character, but there’s not a single scene where both brothers are on screen at the same time. I have to wonder whether those scenes were cut at the last minute, as there’s almost no attention paid to what could have been an engaging sibling rivalry.
Similarly, Sacajewea is a lovely character in the first film and her romance with Terry Roosevelt is touching. In the second film, she has maybe five minutes of screen time total. The role of female lead is taken by a very spunky Amelia Earhart (played by Amy Adams, who looks great throughout the film) and she has an unresolved romantic entanglement with Stiller’s character.
Other than Kahmunrah, the other bad guys are a three stooges-like trio of Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon Bonaparte and Al Capone (played by Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat and Jon Bernthal, respectively). An odd set of people to pull out of history and they were quite undeveloped in the film too.
There are scenes that are very witty and amusing, no question, but I can’t help be disappointed in the film overall, and there are also some scenes in the film that are rather frightening, and wouldn’t be something I’d want my 5yo to watch. In general, the fun/scary pacing of the film seemed a bit off: maybe we can hope for a director’s cut from Shawn Levy that fixes this?
Is Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian worth seeing at all? It definitely is. It does a great job of bringing a complex and varied museum to life, and some of the individual scenes (and effects) are truly terrific. There are also some great lines that elicited good laughs from the audience, and even a couple of musical numbers that I enjoyed (particularly those with the singing cherubs, played by the Jonas Brothers, Kevin, Nick and Joe).
I just wish that it hadn’t succumbed to the narrative Curse of the Sequel.
I cannot wait to see this movie. I really enjoyed the special effects and acting in the first movie, and though I am usually disappointed by sequals I think this has real potential. I enjoyed taking my son to Washington DC and seeing the whole series of Smithsonian Museums, so it will fun to see how they bring them to life! Great summer fun!! This may be a banner year on movies in spite of the daily news.