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Thursday 15 July 2010

Another night, another pay cheque

Night at the Museum: Battle of the SmithsonianImage via Wikipedia
I am currently in the process of trying to combine a review of Ian Mortimer's extensively researched and detailed reappraisal of Henry V, "1415: Henry V's Year of Glory" with the warrior king's entry in my icon series. It's taking some time what with all my other commitments. Anyway, today's entry is not the sort of subject matter I normally put up on this blog, but it does have bearing on my interest in history...

"Night at the Museum 2" - A Review


Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has gone up in the world. Two years after his fantastical and magical experiences at the American Museum of Natural History, where all the exhibits came to life, he has gone from being a night guard to heading a manufacturing company. Daley Devices designs and produces inventions inspired by Larry's time as a night guard. Despite the success, Larry's life has become somewhat humdrum and he decides to visit his old work place. There he meets up with his old boss, Dr McPhee (Ricky Gervais), and discovers that the museum is to be fully renovated with holographic projections replacing most of the exhibits. The exhibits are to be moved to the Federal Archives at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC. Akhmenrah's Tablet will be left at the AMNH and continue to reanimate the few exhibits left there, Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Rexy the tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, the Easter Island Head and Akhmenrah (Rami Malek) himself. However, the rest of the exhibits will remain lifeless.

Matters turn from sad to catastrophic when Dexter, the ever-mischievous stuffed capuchin monkey, steals the tablet and takes it to the Smithsonian Institution. There he inadvertently reanimates not only he and his fellow AMNH friends but also the evil elder brother of Akhmenrah, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) who is hellbent on getting hold of the tablet and unleashing his warriors from the underworld...


This is not the first time that Ben Stiller has appeared in an unnecessary sequel to a very successful film. "Night at the Museum 2" (aka "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian") begs comparisons with "Meet the Fockers", Stiller's follow-up to "Meet the Parents". Granted one is PG rated fantasy comedy aimed completely at the family and the other is a 12 rated "grey" comedy aimed at a more mature audience, but both are transparently driven by studio pressure to milk the franchise cash cow than to a need to continue a storyline. NATM2 didn't even have a weak opening for a sequel.

Nevertheless, on balance, NATM2 is a better second movie (whether or not it is a better movie is another argument). The reason for this is that it retains the principle strength of the MTF, but fewer of its weaknesses. The principle strength is in the casting of a new co-star. In MTF it was Dustin Hoffman who pretty much saved what was otherwise a cranked up retreading of the original "Meet the Parents". In NATM2 we have the inspired casting of Hank Azaria as the lead antagonist, Kahmunrah. Azaria has had several acting roles in feature films, but he is best known as a voice talent for "The Simpsons". I enjoyed his take on the megalomaniacal and idiotic lead villain, especially the decision to give him a Boris Karloff lisp. Fans of the Universal horror movies of the '30s and '40s will see the sly connection, as Karloff played a reanimated Egyptian in 1932's "The Mummy", Imhotep.

However, whereas Hoffman stole the show from the film's other two major stars in MTF, Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller, Azaria compliments Stiller's performance. Like the original, the film is choc full of cameos such as Robin Williams and Steve Coogan who reprise their roles from the first picture. Robin Williams in the Roosevelt caricatures still seems to be stuck in the movie equivalent of the sad-faced clown. After the entertaining "Mrs Doubtfire" and, no doubt, because of the over-rated "Dead Poets Society" the once bouncing ball of imaginative energy often plays the over-sentimental paragon of morality with a few comedic flaws inserted. It's a shame. The guy can be incredibly funny, as his legendary stand-up routine demonstrates, and is a good actor as can be seen in "One Hour Photo", but I am just getting sick of seeing him verging on tears every time he makes a statement. The critically acclaimed actress Amy Adams is slotted as the film's love interest, playing the role of a reanimated exhibit of Amelia Earheart, the female aviation pioneer, with old-fashioned gusto and adventurism. She is given a good deal of screen time and second billing after Stiller, her role is clearly intended to be the most important instrument for reigniting Larry Daley's interest in living a fulfilling life. Unfortunately this means that, unlike Azaria, Adams is straight jacketed into a one dimensional cliché and has little room than to anything other than act as Stiller's adventurous conscience. This could possibly be an editing decision as the ending of the film would imply that she was intended to more than this role.

Earheart, like the giant Lincoln Memorial Statue and various other historical representatives from the Smithsonian, is the personification of what she stood for in American history rather than a reanimation of the actual person. Obviously this ties in well with American family audiences and the popular US ideals of patriotism, which is often connected with the study of American history. Daley's role is also symbolic. He is representative of the wilfully shackled American spirit who has settled for compromise. It's a tone that is often reflected in Stiller's British co-stars and friends that feature in this film and its predecessor. Both Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan are famous for playing characters compromise who their ideals. However, their resulting comedies often carry bittersweet messages with the hint of sophisticated humour. This couldn't be said for "Night of the Museum 2", which - being a movie squarely targeted at the parents and kids audience - comes across as a somewhat ham-fisted lesson in the values that made the USA great. The non-American historical figures, with exception of Coogan's Octavian, are not shown in the best light. Einstein, represented by a series of bobble head souvenirs, may have the mystery to a crucial puzzle, but he is no match for the American villain Al Capone who seems to be dominant evil henchman over both Russia's Ivan the Terrible and France's Napoleon. Even famous American loser and hothead, General Custer gets a shot at redemption!

On the plus side, the film is a good fun family adventure likes its original. Its success at the box office means that another sequel is almost a no-brainer. I recommend it for the purpose it was intended. The special effects are as impressive as ever and the editing ensures that it moves on a good pace. Stiller, although in an unchallenging role, plays a sympathetic hero and his timing is as good as ever. Along with the other good points made earlier and if you can take the American worldview on history with a healthy portion of salt, any film that inspires more visitors to museums gets my vote.
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