Film review of Night at the Museum 2 – written on May 26, 2009
Directed by Shawn Levy
Written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon Starring Ben Stiller, Amy Adams, Owen Wilson, Hank Azaria, Robin Williams, Christopher Guest, Alain Chabat & Ricky Gervais
Night at the Museum 2 (known as Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in the USA) is an entertaining, odd – and reasonably familiar – sequel. The history of Hollywood sequels (or anywhere else, for that matter) shows that unless a follow-on film truly reinvents the genre or has some extraordinary characteristics, it rarely is better than the original. (Witness how this phenomenon transcends Hollywood: no-one has accused Crocodile Dundee 2 of being better than its ancestor.)
My take on Night at the Museum 2 is that is pretty much line ball, no worse, but not really much better. It does carry “sequel-itis” with it, with a tedious and unexciting reintroduction of the major characters, and assumes that not only do we know these characters, but that we actually remember how they relate to each other.
The basic plot, for anyone who has missed it, is that night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), who works at the New York City Museum of Natural History, presides over a whole menagerie of historical figures (and animals) which come to life at night because of the power of an ancient Egyptian gold wall plate. Many of the figures are historical: Robin Williams plays President Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wilson plays a miniature cowboy, and there is Sacajawea (a famous native American), Attila the Hun, so on. Maddeningly, the second instalment assumes that we know – and remember – who these characters really are from the first film. The problem is that the relationships in the first film were not so profound: I saw the film, but couldn’t remember why any of the characters cared for each other.
The second film starts some time later: the various characters are all being shipped off to the national archives in Washington, D.C. – allowing the film to be primarily set at the Smithsonian Institution (the very large American museum in central Washington), and introducing lots of new ones – with some truly awesome effects. The story (and there’s not much of it) centres mostly around how a megalomaniac Egyptian ruler Kahmunrah (played by Hank Azaria, who just about steals the movie from Ben Stiller) combines with Napoleon and Al Capone to rule the museum and terrorise our hero Larry. And this time, Larry is given a new sidekick: a very lovely Amelia Earhart (played by a luminous Amy Adams, who neatly captures an American speech pattern of the 1920s), an adventuresome woman who appears up for anything (within the context of a PG film; but why should she be so attracted to Larry?). The new characters provide a dizzying parade – the African-American “Tuskegee Airmen” (a sop to African-American film-goers, perhaps?), the statue of Abraham Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial coming to life, as well as “The Thinker” sculpture.
The delightful moments are not in the interminable (and mostly meaningless) chase scenes, but in the highly creative means that show the museum pieces and figures coming to life. This time, we see paintings actually living on the walls (such as “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, 1930), and the film’s characters can interact with them.
The neatest trick is one taken right out of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo – not an original idea to be sure, but superbly executed. While being chased through the Smithsonian, Larry and Amelia step into the famous end-of-World War II photo of a sailor kissing a nurse at Times Square in New York City, taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt variously called either “The Kiss” or “V J Day in Times Square” (August 14, 1945). They interact with the characters, and Larry drops his mobile phone there, with – this film implies – consequences later on, which are unfortunately not developed. This film is like that: numerous elements of true comic, artistic and technical brilliance with weak and sloppy writing that give most of the actors too little of substance to do, although Amy Adams and Hank Azaria seem to have made the most of it.
Ben Stiller is indeed the heart and soul of this film, in large part because of his willingness to play – again – a foolish character with smarts. Or is it the smart character who is really a fool? Either way, it’s a familiar, comfortable and engaging Stiller role: think of Stiller’s classic characterisations in the “Fockers” films or There’s Something About Mary. There is also a great scene between Stiller and an uncredited Jonah Hill (Superbad), who plays a Smithsonian Museum guard, where the two of them play a museum form of “chicken”. The scene has great writing and nice execution. Overall, the execution in this film is “in spades”, as we used to say, but the writing is spotty.
With more scenes like the one Jonah Hill is in, Night at the Museum 2 could have approached greatness. It will make a lot of money: it has already grossed $73 million in the USA in its first week, and $5.6 million in Australia (meaning that it may “under-perform” in Australia), so the film-makers can congratulate themselves – it will easily return its $150 million (US) budget. But with so much acting and technical talent, this film could have been great and not just successful.