Shawn Levy has no soul. Perhaps put another way, he is one of the few filmmakers working today who lacks the requisite motion picture magic to make his fantastical ideas sing. Now that's nothing new to anyone who's seen his hamfisted hackwork in such incoherent remake comedies as Cheaper by the Dozen and The Pink Panther. He's also the Nachos, Flanders Style of visionaries, unable to bring a lick of wonder to his tedious kid flick Night at the Museum. Now he's back with another baffling, sure-to-be crowd pleaser, and while Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian has much better effects than the prior outing, the story -- and some of the casting -- seems geared toward destroying any amount of visual goodwill accrued.
It's been a few years since Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) worked as a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History in New York. He has since become a highly successful infomercial pitchman. When he learns from the statue of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) that most of his favorite exhibits, including the miniatures of cowboy Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson) and Roman Emperor Octavius (Steve Coogan), are being "decommissioned" and taken to the Federal Archive in DC, he's sad. A late night phone call from his "friends" has him headed to the nation's capital and breaking into the Smithsonian. There, he discovers Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), evil brother of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), who wants a fabled golden tablet so he can take over the world. With the help of Gen. Custer (Bill Hader) and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), Larry must stop the resurrected despot and save the day. Article continues below
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is like an overstuffed sausage. There is so much going on here, presented in such uninspired empty-calorie servings, that you grow bloated on the unending eye candy. If movies are capable of being enjoyed in disconnected dribs and drabs, this would be said concept's poster child. For every element it gets right (the Lincoln Memorial comes to life, an angry giant squid), there are things that just don't work (Azaria's Boris Karloff by way of Michael Palin's Pontius Pilate accent, Adams' Dead End Kids jargon). Let's face it -- any movie with the sexless Jonas Brothers as annoying singing cherubs is either the height of satire, or the low point of public pandering. The rest of the film proves the latter. Sadder still, reliable bit players like Hader, Johan Hill, and Ricky Gervais are reduced to ad-libbed mumbling, bringing nothing to the bland buffet.
This is an idea that should fly. It should tap into every viewer's inner child -- that curious little kid that actually did wonder what happened at their local museum once the lights went out -- and fulfill his or her wildest dreams. Instead, Levy, in cahoots with returning screenwriting team Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, turn everything into a joke, and a bad one at that. Supposedly funny scenes go on too long, actors are allowed to insert unappealing (and uncharacteristic) pop culture references pell-mell, and the quest/resolution formula gets played out over and over again. Even the Armies of the Undead, threatened for the entire run of the narrative, turn out to be grade-schooler friendly. This is a movie that fully understands its underage demo, and purposefully plays down to (and often under) it.
By putting the old Museum characters to the side to introduce future facets of what will inevitably be an ongoing franchise, Battle of the Smithsonian is a definite step up for the series. Perhaps by dumping dull director Levy, the idea might finally find the wings to soar. As of now, it's still grounded.