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Field Trip of Dreams

MOVIE REVIEW
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009)

NATM2-623
Twentieth Century Fox

Given the unfortunate pedigree of a mediocre predecessor and an awful trailer, if you’d told me “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” would actually be worth watching, I’d have trotted out a cruise ship to sell you. Yet, I sit here at my keyboard hours after seeing the film, and I’m in a state of shock. Not only is the movie not a product driven forth from the fieriest depths of family film hell, it’s a fun, spirited adventure story that works where the original failed.

Ben Stiller, in full-fledged nice-guy mode, returns as Larry Daley. He’s traded in the flashlight and security uniform for the world of late-night infomercials, where he hawks state-of-the-art flashlights and other products for his own start-up business. He’s neglected his formerly good friends and overnight companions, the various statues, models and wax figures that comprise the American Museum of Natural History, but he’s not the only one.

The curator (Ricky Gervais) signs onto an aggressive digitized modernization plan, that means such museum staples as Jebediah Smith (Owen Wilson) and Octavius (Steve Coogan) will be carted up and shipped off to the Smithsonian. On their first night in D.C., dramatics happen after the Egyptian Pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azariah) awakes and plots world domination with the help of Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat) and a black-and-white Al Capone (Jon Bernthal). Larry, with an assist from the eternally spunky Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), must save the day.

What must first be said about the sequel is that it remains consistent with the all-powerful Amy Adams Rule, which holds that any movie featuring Ms. Adams is instantly, vastly improved because of it. For director Shawn Levy, working with screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (of “Reno 911” fame), the decision to incorporate Amelia in such a major way amounts to a significant coup, as special effects-laden scenes become so much more tolerable when they’re centered on such a relentlessly lovable actress. Mr. Stiller is tethered pretty tightly to the straight man routine, but Ms. Adams joyfully riffs and flirts and ratchets up the picture’s entertainment value throughout.

Absent the need to feature Larry running around in screaming terror, as he did for most of the original, the filmmakers are able to focus the plotting and experiment some with set pieces. So the narrative hits the ground running quickly and keeps up its pacing throughout, save for some unfortunate asides that usually involve Larry comically interacting with one of the resurrected figures. Several sequences, such as one in which Larry and Amelia actually leap into the famous Alfred Eisenstadt photo of the sailor and the nurse on V-J Day in Times Square display levels of imagination largely absent from the original. Others, like a sojourn to the Air & Space Museum complete with Clint Howard at Mission Control, evoke a sense of free-spirited wonder with their colorful, meticulously constructed resurrection of iconic historical figures and periods.

“Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” is as busy and ultimately as superficial as the original, but it’s a far more satisfying experience thanks to its wholesale addition of new historical figures, apt casting of Ms. Adams and willingness to push creative boundaries rather than resting on formulaic laurels. The film’s likely to receive a critical lambasting, but I’m not ashamed to admit that my inner cynic melted away the moment Larry entered the Smithsonian Castle. If the movie brings the archaic names and faces of history alive for its younger audience members, inspiring questions about Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln or Napoleon, that’s merely a welcome bonus.

NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM: BATTLE OF THE SMITHSONIAN

Opens on May 22 in the United States and on May 20 in Britain.

Directed by Shawn Levy; written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon; director of photography, John Schwartzman; edited by Don Zimmerman and Dean Zimmerman; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Mr. Levy, Chris Columbus and Michael Barnathan; released by 20th Century Fox. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. This film is rated PG.

WITH: Ben Stiller (Larry Daley), Jake Cherry (Nick Daley), Amy Adams (Amelia Earhart), Owen Wilson (Jedediah), Hank Azaria (Kahmunrah), Christopher Guest (Ivan the Terrible), Alain Chabat (Napoleon), Steve Coogan (Octavius), Ricky Gervais (Dr. McPhee), Bill Hader (General Custer), Jon Bernthal (Al Capone) and Robin Williams (Teddy Roosevelt).

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