Midway through Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and his band of museum pieces come to life are transported to the Federal Archives at the Smithsonian. Here at the “world’s largest museum,” they meet new friends, including one of Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog” statues. Frolicking through the halls of the National Museum of Art, the “Balloon Dog” is as light as air in all its shiny, mirrored, red fabulousness, and accompanied by a sproing-sproingy sound effect at each bound.
The CGIed romp is totally charming—and just as totally fleeting. Battle of the Smithsonian is a kids’ flick, after all, so rapid pacing, broad sight gags, and physical humor are the rule of order. To wonder whether it’s a “good” film in any high falutin’ cinematic terms is to miss the point of the exercise. Like its predecessor, the sequel aims to invigorate some mild curiosity in its target audience, and presents itself as a sort of champion of the powers of the imagination.
This latter project is embedded directly into the plot of Battle of the Smithsonian. The reason that the collection has been shipped off to DC is that New York’s Museum of Natural History is under renovation, including the installation of computerized, “interactive” features (like a holographic update of Teddy Roosevelt ([Robin Williams]). Thus the teeny-tiny cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and his tiny little boyfriend, I mean best friend, Octavius (Steve Coogan), and all their historical pals are interred in pine boxes to make way for “innovation.” The message is clear: innovation is no substitute for imagination, and it’s up to Larry to save the day as well as young viewers’ minds.
It’s a tall order, especially the part about getting kids to think, rather than just consume. And yet Battle of the Smithsonian might pull it off. Last summer, my niece and nephew visited me in Washington, DC. They were totally jazzed about visiting Mount Vernon. Why? Because the site was featured prominently in the National Treasure sequel. Off to George Washington’s manse we went, and while they were most excited by the special National Treasure tie-in walking tour of the grounds, the kids learned a lot more about colonial life in America than they had anticipated, and even enjoyed it.
And so I can believe Night at the Museum‘s frequently repeated selling point, that the first film and now this one encourages kids to actually go to a museum, even to believe art is a vital part of life and not just some boring old thing that hangs on a wall. It’s possible too that some viewers of Battle of the Smithsonian will want to learn more about Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) or the Tuskegee Airmen (Keith Powell, Craig Robinson). The film itself appears to take this possibility seriously, celebrating the accomplishments of persons largely marginalized or tokenized in regular U.S. history.
It also sets up a series of historical villains, like Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and Al Capone (John Bernthal), typically deemed individual deviants, but also symptoms of the broader cultural embrace of Great Men, patriarchal figures who just don’t know when to stop. Their counterpart here is General George Armstrong Custer (Bill Hader), introduced as the great-white-daddy substitute for the first film’s Teddy Roosevelt. His bravado and hubris have to be taken down a notch before he can join our band of heroes.
Those heroes are led by unconventional figures in U.S. national history. Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck) returns from the first film, now largely responsible for the re-education of General Custer, pointing out the obvious holes and flawed logic in his battle plans. Amelia Earhart is a no-nonsense, take-charge kind of woman whose cool head and clear thinking direct Larry’s attempts to rescue his friends.
At one point, Amelia and Larry run in to a group of Tuskegee Airmen in the Air and Space Museum, one of whom immediately recognizes the aviatrix and acknowledges her influence and accomplishments. Tuskegee Airman #1 (strikingly, these historical figures remain unidentified) thanks Earhart for her determination, telling her, “People didn’t think we could fly, either.” It’s a poignant moment, as surprising for its alternative to dominant narratives of the drive of history by great (white) men, as it is for connecting the historical struggles of a wide range of marginalized populations. In Battle of the Smithsonian, the real heroes of history are women, native peoples, and “others” of all sorts. For all that might be predictable about this film, that is an uncommon lesson.