Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

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Out on DVD this week is Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a sequel to 2006’s Night at the Museum. In the earlier film, which I missed, Ben Stiller played a new night watchman in the American Museum of Natural History in New York who learns that every night, after closing time, a magical Egyptian tablet brings the exhibits, everything from the T-Rex skeleton to the figure of Teddy Roosevelt, to life.

The new film moves the action to D.C., bringing the whole Smithsonian collection to life, even the National Gallery, which here has made such impressive acquisitions as American Gothic and The Thinker. Stiller, helped by his relocated American Museum pals and also by Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), must try to thwart the plot of a sinister Egyptian prince (Hank Azaria) to, what else, take over the world.

That’s as much detail as the plot deserves. I am not the fellow to claim that a movie combining a dinosaur, a cowboy, a Roman conqueror, a pterodactyl, a Lockheed Vega, gangsters, Huns, a giant octopus and Amy Adams in aviatrix boots offered me no diversion at all, but this grab bag of a blockbuster is extremely silly, extremely corny and extremely variable. Still, some of the casting is fun, like Steve Coogan as Octavius, Christopher Guest as Ivan the Terrible, Alain Chabat as Napoleon, and Ricky Gervais as a grumpy museum official. There’s a routine early on between Stiller and Jonah Hill that’s pretty funny, and Azaria, doing a lilting, lisping Boris Karloff impression, makes the most of his comic-villain duties.

What I most appreciated about the film, though, was its implied criticism of the fixation, in latter-day museums, with “interactive” displays that will appeal to kids (it’s for this that the American Museum pieces are being displaced) at the expense of static pieces.  I don’t think I’m a Luddite, but I do think we cheat kids if we don’t teach them the value of simply looking at remarkable things, admiring them as objects. The movie’s fantasy may be seen, in this light, as dramatizing the way that our imaginations bring well-presented exhibits to life more powerfully and spontaneously than interactive technology can hope to.

The real Battle of the Smithsonian, of course, is an ongoing one over which interpretations of history and culture will hold sway in the exhibits. I remember when the National Museum of American History was called the Museum of History and Technology, and I remember it being much cooler than when the name was changed in the early ’80s, and the focus shifted to pop-culture trivia like Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers and Archie Bunker’s Chair (both of which get amusing cameos in the film, by the way). Don’t get me wrong, I’m more susceptible than most people to the allure of pop artifacts, and I got a kick out of seeing Carroll O’Connor’s butt-print in the seat of Archie’s chair. But I don’t think it’s a substitute for the history of human invention and innovation.

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