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Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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Illuminated by an incandescent cast, Battle of the Smithsonian is packed to the rafters with goofy charm.

New Neighbors

Roosevelt's wisdom gets lost
Roosevelt’s wisdom gets lost

Larry Daley (Ben Stiller, Tropic Thunder) does for night guards what Indiana Jones did for archaeologists. Well, sorta. During the past couple years, things have changed for Larry. Thanks to the success of his invention, the glow-in-the-dark flashlight, Larry’s gone from night guard to TV pitch man, hosting infomercials with special guests like George Foreman.

Paying a visit to his old stomping grounds, New York’s Museum of Natural History, Larry is dismayed to learn the museum’s undergoing a major renovation — featuring all-new exhibits — and crating up the stodgy old displays for storage down at the Smithsonian’s archives.

As established in Night at the Museum, the goofy premise is that an Egyptian tablet makes the exhibits come to life when the sun goes down, which is a double oddity given the Egyptians were, for quite some time, sun worshippers. Larry has an emotional attachment to the exhibits but, heck, the new ones will come to life as long as that tablet remains, right?

Well, the tablet is spirited away by a capuchin monkey and the friendly exhibits of the natural history museum face intimidating opponents in the Smithsonian, like Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest, This Is Spinal Tap), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat, Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra), and Akhmenrah’s brother, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria, The Simpsons).

Thank goodness those exhibits imported from New York have the unflappable Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams, Enchanted) and General Custer (Bill Hader, Adventureland) on their side.

History Lessons

There’s a nice movie moment when Larry, distracted by his BlackBerry, misses a pearl of wisdom from Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society) as the sun rise causes the venerable President to turn back to wax.

While the “rules” of the tablet at first blush seem to be arbitrary and akin to never, ever feeding a Mogwai after midnight, closer inspection leans toward the rules working within their own conceit. Keep in mind, this isn’t Dan Brown territory. This is from the same screenwriters who authored Balls of Fury.

With comedy trumping historical fiction, slap-happy slapstick humor and a smattering of clever movie and whimsical history references rule the night. Besides, it’s the only movie in memory to feature a slow-motion battle scene involving dozens of disparate historical figures, a giant squid (er, octopus) and a capuchin monkey.

Throw in cameos by Oscar the Grouch and Darth Vader, along with numerous classic works of art brought to life, and the movie ultimately creates enough goodwill to earn a passing grade. This is a movie with a considerable amount of heart for the characters and Adams’ portrayal of Amelia Earhart is far more spunky and full of gusto than Hilary Swank’s bio-pic take.

There’s even a nice message about doing what you love that gives this over-the-top sequel a healthy sense of self.

DVD Extras

Disc 1:

Accompanying the feature film on Disc 1 is the bulk of the movie-centric supplemental features.

The commentary track by director Shawn Levy is engaging and informative, with Levy more than willing to give credit where credit is due, focusing on the adlibbing talents of his veteran cast and calling out key moments of unscripted humor. It’s a good track for movie fans to listen to as Levy energetically offers loads of information, including comments on the meshing of his sensibilities with the edgier tendencies of star Ben Stiller, who’s also helmed his own projects in the director’s chair.

A second commentary, by writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, gets off to a really grating start before settling into a reasonably entertaining track. Ironically, while Levy often points out moments of adlib by the stars, Garant and Lennon try in vain to adlib a scenario for Night at the Museum 3involving Shania Twain and the woolly mammoth and it’s lame with a capital “L.” That’s not the only time their humor goes off the rails and sometimes they keep harping on the same unfunny riff. On the other hand, it’s amusing to hear them talk about how Ricky Gervais cracks himself up. And they earn points for briefly attempting to address the “rules” issue as well as providing some insight into the innards of the real world Smithsonian network of museums.

The Curators of Comedy: Behind-the-Scenes of Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is a decent, 20-minute documentary on the making of the movie offering lots and lots of good behind-the-scenes footage.

Also on exhibit are five deleted scenes and an alternate ending, accompanied by an optional commentary track by director Levy. In this case, the commentaries are as unnecessary as the clips. This section clocks in for a total of approximately 11 minutes, but one clip, the “director’s cut” of the “Brundon” scene, accounts for nearly half that time. The final cut runs a bit long as it is, but, gosh, Levy sure does like that scene.

An 8-minute gag reel proves to be more entertaining than most gag reels, thanks in large part to the over-the-top mannerisms of Ricky Gervais.

Somewhat amusing is Phinding Pharaoh, which spends its 5 minutes following Hank Azaria as he finds his pharaonic accent.

Finally, there’s The Jonas Brothers in Cherub Bootcamp, which is a surprisingly funny 4-minute mockumentary that carries some of the Ben Stiller / Tropic Thunder vibe as it shows Levy going to great lengths to inspire worthy performances from his not-so-cherubic musician-thespians.

Disc 2:

Bundled together, but packaged separately in order to take up more shelf space, the second disc is titled Monkey Mischief — and for good reason. It’s totally focused on Crystal and her understudy, Squirt, the capuchin monkey movie stars.

There isn’t all that much on the disc. Two of the featurettes will be of interest to die-hard simian fans, but won’t earn a second look from the other 99.9999% of the population. Monkey Business is 5 minutes all about Crystal, the lead capuchin monkey actress. Conspicuously, this segment’s from 2006 and focuses on her work in the first Museum movie. Primate Prima Donnas is basically an updated version of Monkey Business, this time it’s a 6-minute segment featuring the monkeys’ work in Battle of the Smithsonian.

More worthwhile is the 7-minute The Secret Life of a Monkey Movie Star: Life Off Camera, which, unlike the previous two monkey minis, more fully exhibits the goofy mockumentary stylings of the Jonas Brothers segment. Behold Crystal on the treadmill and in the bath, at the keyboard and at the typewriter.

As with the video supplements on Disc 1, all three featurettes here are presented in full screen, 1.85:1.

Also on the disc are a couple games.

Monkey Slap is a dippy DVD-ROM game. Play as either Cecil (the Dick Van Dyke character in the first movie) or Dexter (one of the monkey characters) and use the arrow keys on the keyboard to slap or dodge your opponent. After a minute or two the novelty wears off.

Able & Dexter’s Flights of Fancy is a ho-hum trivia game clearly designed for youngsters. By correctly answering questions, players get the opportunity to select vehicle components and earn fuel for a flight in their newly-designed aircraft.

Picture and Sound

Typical of Fox releases, the video and audio quality is first rate. The picture quality, presented in 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen TVs, is state of the art for the standard DVD format, offering plenty of nice details amid the movie’s wackiness.

The English 5.1 Dolby Digital track is also nicely done. At times it feels fairly heavy on the front channels, but when the action takes off, the sound design is there to provide an extra boost.

Also available are French and Spanish Dolby Surround audio tracks and subtitles in English and Spanish.

How to Use This DVD

Enjoy the movie for what it is, some genuinely old-fashioned lightweight entertainment amped up with today’s top-of-the-line special effects technology. For a little more fun, check out the mockumentaries The Jonas Brothers in Cherub Bootcamp and The Secret Life of a Monkey Movie Star: Life Off Camera.