Night of the Living Koons

From Monet’s water lilies to Rodin’s thinker, art comes to life in the new Night at the Museum movie.

Ben Stiller stars alongside Rodin’s Thinker in the movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.


The 2006 blockbuster Night at the Museum took a fantastical jaunt through New York’s American Museum of Natural History, with a bumbling night guard played by Ben Stiller getting an interactive primer in ancient and bygone times. Robin Williams showed up as a blustering Teddy Roosevelt; there were also pyromaniac Neanderthals, vengeful capuchin monkeys, and the rickety skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex caught off-exhibit and in line at the water fountain. Now, the movie’s sequel is throwing another challenge at our unlikely hero, with paintings and sculptures coming to life. Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, out from 20th Century Fox later this month, takes the action to Washington, D.C. Stiller reprises his role as museum guard Larry Daley, this time facing off against the evil pharaoh Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria). At one point Daley seeks refuge from him in the museum’s art galleries, but serenity there is short-lived. Children in a winter-landscape painting pelt him with snowballs, and the couple in Grant Wood’s American Gothic (1930) begin to stir. With the pharaoh rapidly approaching, Daley seizes an unusual opportunity. He snatches the farmer’s pitchfork, uses it to ward off the Egyptian tyrant, then leaps into Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famed photograph VJ Dayand escapes through 1945 Times Square.

Portions of Battle of the Smithsonian were shot on location at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and Castle, but director Shawn Levyand his crew built a set in Vancouver for the more action-heavy sequences. The art galleries on screen are based loosely on the interiors of the National Portrait Gallery. But the exhibition within functions as a hit parade of sorts, bringing to life a swath of American and European art history.

As Daley makes his way through the galleries, a Pollock bursts with streaks and splatters as if the painter’s ghost were still at work. Nearby, Monet’s water lilies sway gently on a pond in Giverny; the geometric shapes in an Ellsworth Kelly painting shift around like icons in an Atari video game; and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams)—whom Daley picked up over at the Air and Space Museum—dances with Degas’s young ballerina. Later, Earhart tries to explain the gravity of the pharaoh situation to Rodin’s thinker. “It’s a matter of life or death!” she exclaims. “I’ll tell you what’s a matter of life or death,” the thinker replies, flexing his muscles and eyeing a marble goddess. “That beautiful lady over there. Hey, baby! Check out the gun show going on over here!”

Most of the artworks were animated via computer graphics, but for figurative paintings like American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks(1942), Levy cast look-alike actors and later added an overlay of paint effects in the background.

Securing permissions was tricky—not only are the works seen on-screen, they also become part of the action and take on specific personalities. But, for the most part, artists and estates proved amenable: “The only piece that is in the film with the permission of the artist but not animated at his request is a work by Jasper Johns,” Levy says. Johns’s Three Flags (1958) remains motionless as a Jeff Koons balloon dog darts in front of it with Dennis Oppenheim’s Upper Cut (1992), a sculpture of a mouth with books for teeth, nipping persistently at its heels.

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