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Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

(2009) ** Pg
105 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Shawn Levy. Cast: Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Hank Azaria, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan.

/content/films/3413/1.jpg“Sometimes the greatest change brings about an even greater opportunity.” These sage words come from Teddy Roosevelt, or at least his magically animated waxwork, in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. But the more things change in a movie sequel, the more they stay the same. Indeed, this child’s storybook adventure—again directed by Shawn Levy and scripted by Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon—proves not to be creatively adventurous.

The sequel to the 2006 hit Night at the Museum begins with a cursory change: Museum of Natural History night guard Larry Daley (sturdy Ben Stiller) quit his job and got rich quick selling his own products on late-night infomercials. Upon visiting his old stomping grounds, Larry learns from museum director Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) that all of the old exhibits are being shipped off to storage in Washington D.C. to make way for interactive holographic replacements. “People like ‘What’s next,’” McPhee explains.

But what’s next is pretty much what came before: lots of frantic running around among exhibits come to life. The venue change to the Smithsonian provides the novelty as Larry tries to protect his friends (including Owen Wilson’s cowboy Jedediah and Steve Coogan’s Roman centurion Octavius) from becoming the collateral damage of evil, lisping pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria, channeling Stewie from Family Guy). The Smithsonian gives Levy a new set of toys, including spunky Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), the Lincoln Memorial and Rodin’s The Thinker (both voiced by Simpsons vet Azaria), Archie Bunker’s chair and American Gothic, a Turner seascape and a display case full of Einstein bobbleheads.

As the film points out, the Smithsonian is not one but nineteen museums spread across the National Mall (and, in real life, well beyond it). This breadth offers a wealth of possibilities, including some hairy indoor play involving planes and rockets in the Air and Space Museum (and you thought football in the house was bad). But the story feels mechanically engineered for special effect after special effect, all of them derivations of ideas we’ve seen before, not only in Night at the Museum, but its predecessors Jumanji, Ghostbusters, and even Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

Worse, despite a galaxy of comedy stars in cameos—among them Robin Williams (as Roosevelt), Christopher Guest (as Ivan the Terrible), Bill Hader (as hair-obsessed maniac Custer), Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, and The Office stars Ed Helms, Mindy Kaling, and Craig Robinson—the film musters only a few lackluster laughs.

But like its predecessor, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian has one trump card: it’s a kid-friendly, “PG” film that celebrates museums. And given that the Museum of Natural History got a major bump from the first film, this one should spark kids to learn about and from the Smithsonian, as well as other museums (on the other hand, thise same kids may need some extra physics tutoring). Movie mediocrity aside, maybe it’s a good thing Stiller hasn’t hung up his Maglite just yet.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 12/1/2009

Distributor: 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

With its Blu-ray + DVD +Digital Copy combo package of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Fox delivers an unbeatable presentation of the popular family film. For A/V sticklers, there's an outstanding transfer that retains a film-like appearance despite the many digital after-effects used to create the film. Detail and texture are excellent, as is contrast, but it's the rich color that is the most striking element of this image; all in all, the picture quality is fantastic. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix puts its eggs largely into the basket of Alan Silvestri's score, which is typically robust; effects are peppy enough, though this isn't the sort of track to test your surround capabilities—it tends to be front-heavy. For the family crowd, Fox includes more playback options—a DVD copy and a Digital Copy—as well as a slew of bonus features, some of which will also please movie buffs.

For starters, you'll find a commentary by director Shawn Levy and a commentary by writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon; the former is energetic but dull, while the latter is decidely more droll, coming as it does from writer-performers who cut their teeth with comedy troupe The State.

There's also the Scavenger Hunt Mode, an in-movie game testing the viewer's knowledge of the museum's treasures during playback of the film.

"The Curators of Comedy: Behind-the-Scenes of Night at the Museum 2" (27:52, HD) is a reasonably in-depth look at the film's making, featuring interviews with Levy, Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Robin Williams, Bill Hader, Hank Azaria, Christopher Guest, Steve Coogan, Owen Wilson, Ricky Gervais, Jon Bernthal, Alain Chabat, and production designer Claude Paré. With so many funny folk chatting to the camera, it's well worth a look.

In "Historical Confessions: Famous Last Words" (6:29, HD), Napoleon, Custer, Capone, Ivan the Terrible share some thoughts about themselves.

"Directing 201: A Day in the Life of Director/Producer Shawn Levy" (19:19, HD) follows the director as he works with the crew, Wilson and Coogan.

"Cavemen Conversations: Survival of the Wittiest" (4:18, HD) is a goofy "interview" with the film's three cavemen.

"Museum Magic: Entering the World of the Photograph" (5:41, HD) details a particvular special effects sequence; Levy and VFX supervisor Dan Deleeuw participate.

"Secret Doors and Scientists: Behind-the-Scenes of The American Museum of Natural History" (15:58, HD) allows curators to plug the museum, the film's raison d'etre (OK, that and lots of box-office moolah).

In "Phinding the Pharaoh" (4:50, HD) Levy and Azaria present test footage of Azaria working out his character.

Three "Show Me the Monkey Featurettes" (17:59, HD) include interviews with Levy, Stiller, Williams, Gervais, Chabat, and the monkeys' trainers as we learn about the process of working with primates.

"The Jonas Brothers in 'Cherub Bootcamp'" (3:53, HD) is an amusing mockumentary with Levy, Stiller, and The Jonas Brothers.

Twelve "Deleted Scenes" (26:44, HD) come with optional commentary by Levy. Best of set is an alternate ending with Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs; why this added chance to see three film legends wasn't at least tacked on to the film's credits is beyond me.

"Gangster Levy" (1:57, HD) provides a close-up look at Levy's cameo appearance in the film.

Last up are a high-spirited "Gag Reel" (8:10, HD); "Fox Movie Channel Presents Making a Scene" (9:36, SD) with Levy, Garant, Lennon, Paré, Clint Howard, and executive producer/1st assistant director Josh McLaglen; and "Fox Movie Channel Presents World Premiere" (5:29, SD) with Levy, Stiller, Robin Williams, Garant, Lennon, Azaria, and Adams.

Disc Two holds the DVD and Disc Three the Digital Copy for portable media players.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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