Smithsonian Exhibits Come Alive In “Night at the Museum” Sequel
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
As a former president of the Key West Art & Historical Society, which oversees the Custom House, the Lighthouse, and the East Martello museums, I couldn’t wait to see “Night at the Museum: Battle of Smithsonian,” the new Ben Stiller comedy that’s playing at Tropic Cinema.
Watching the exhibits in Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum come to life, with Stiller’s character acting as a one-man ground control trying to keep all the rockets and aircraft from crashing into each other, was like a modern-day Lucy in the Pie Factory.
I wondered how much of it had actually been filmed inside the real Smithsonian Museum.
Turns out, Carey Winfrey, the editor-in-chief of Smithsonian Magazine, is my neighbor here in Key West. So I asked him about it.
Carey chuckled. “Your question reflects a common misconception; that the Smithsonian is a museum. It in fact comprises some 28 museums, plus research facilities, labs etc.”
Having set me straight, he continued on about the movie: “It was filmed both onsite in Washington and on a soundstage in Vancouver, Canada.”
Hm, I wanted to know more, so Carey directed me to other sources of information:
“One of the fun things for viewers will be trying to guess which parts of the movie were shot in the real DC in the real Smithsonian buildings and which parts were shot on soundstages and green screen and sets because it’s fairly seamless and I think our production design team did an exceptional job creating a seamless blend of reality and fiction,” explains Shawn Levy, the film’s director.
Levy also directed the original “Night at the Museum,” which was set in New York’s Museum of Natural History. Moviegoers laughed at Ben Stiller – along with Owen Wilson and Robin Williams – being chased by a T Rex through the halls of that venerable institution to the tune of $575 million in worldwide box office receipts.
So it’s not a big surprise that Levy and his production team focused on another famous museum for this sequel.
“When we came up with the notion of the Smithsonian as an idea for the script I came to DC and I scouted it and I was thrilled to see that the real Smithsonian was cooler than what it was in my head,” says Levy. “So in fact I came back to Los Angeles having scouted out the Smithsonian and rewrote the script including a lot of super cool stuff that I’d seen in real life that I couldn’t have possibly have imagined.”
Particularly enthralled by the gothic Castle (the Smithsonian Institution’s original building, now an office complex and information center), Levy re-imagined it as an evil fortress where a villainous Egyptian pharaoh (Hank Azaria) sits on a throne (Archie Bunker’s chair) atop a pile of looted museum treasures.
Dwight Blocker Bowers, curator of entertainment for the National Museum of American History, was horrified by the very idea of iconic artifacts piled in a heap.
But when Shawn Levy and his film crew descended on the National Mall for four days and nights in May 2008, he and the other curators played along. “I hope it shows that we have a sense of humor," says Bowers.
Amy Adams (an actress who has received two Academy Award nominations, most recently for her role as a young nun in “Doubt”) co-stars in “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” as Amelia Earhart.
At the heart of this comedy is a love story featuring Stiller’s character and America’s most famous aviatrix. Thus, much of the action takes place at the Air and Space Museum. Her Lockheed Vega, which is on exhibit there, became a central element of the movie.
“We did our shooting in the Air and Space Museum at night, which allowed me to have an intimate experience with the exhibit,” says the director. “When you see how small her plane was, you really understand her fortitude.”
Along for this return trip are a miniature cowboy named Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson) and rough-riding Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams). Also back are a historical array of Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Octavius (Steve Coogan), Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), and winsome Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck).
Add Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat), and General George Armstrong Custer (Bill Hader) to complete the zaniness.
Jake Cherry reprises his role as Stiller’s young sidekick, a kid for all those preteens in the audience to identify with.
How accurate are these historic personages and museum exhibits? “I think all the characters, etc. are based on actual artifacts or exhibits – there’s at least some correlation,” says Carey Winfrey.
“The Smithsonian is the largest museum complex in the world,” Carey points out. No major movie has been shot inside the Smithsonian until now.
Aside from all the funny stuff, this is a movie about a guy who has lost his way and no longer enjoys what he does every day. Ironically, it’s his friendship with Amelia Earhart – famous for having gotten lost -- that “helps him find his way back to his better self.”
[from Solares Hill]