Like actor Ben Stiller, whose likeness features prominently in the game, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is completely harmless and rather short. These aren't unexpected qualities in a kid-friendly film tie-in, but when a game is barely longer than the movie it apes, it's hard to justify a purchase, even at a budget price. This blandly innocuous game does offer up a few clever gameplay mechanics that provide doses of amusement, but these bright spots can't completely veil the awkward platforming and forced, occasionally uncomfortable humor.
Had Stiller infused his performance with a bit more energy, perhaps Battle of the Smithsonian would have been funnier, but sleepy delivery and awkward timing make the lame dialogue fall even flatter. As his character Larry Dailey, the protagonist of both Night at the Museum films, you leave the confines of the American Museum of Natural History for the expanses of the Smithsonian. There, Pharaoh Akhmenrah's evil brother Kahmunrah is threatening to do evil things using the power of a magical tablet that brings museum exhibits to life. During the game's paltry two hours or so, Larry befriends Amelia Earhart, battles Al Capone from atop a skeletal T-rex, pilots a lunar module, and meets an electrifying Ben Franklin, who seems to enjoy his encounters with lightning a bit more than he should. To offer an educational counterpoint to this mishmash of historical mumbo jumbo, historical tidbits appear during loading times, and you can activate exhibit voice-overs as you explore the galleries. It's a weird juxtaposition of fantasy and reality, and it isn't always consistent. For example, a text blurb tells you that Napoleon was actually taller than the average Frenchmen of his time, but in the game, the same Emperor tells you he was of average height. And apparently, the mere mention of a pigeon could send Abe Lincoln on a murderous rampage.
Of course, a game in which you jump into one painting only to come plummeting out of another isn't meant to be taken seriously, and there are some amusing ideas at work here. Your main goal is to piece together the tablet fragments that Kahmunrah has scattered around; each time you retrieve one, you earn a special power. These abilities include taming animals, repairing broken artwork, summoning lightning bolts, and more. In turn, you'll solve puzzles using these skills, which may involve getting a rhinoceros to knock over obelisks of ice to create makeshift ramps, starting up airplane engines to initiate jumping sequences, or jumping through a series of framed masterpieces to retrieve a set of keys. In one charming scene, The Thinker fends off attackers while you make some necessary seating repairs; in another, you use the talents of some hovering cupids to fend off Ivan the Terrible. These scenes are easy to figure out, but they're cute and clever enough to please the game's younger target audience.
Other sequences provide some variety, but they're inconsistent in quality, particularly when platforming is involved. An excursion through a vending machine had potential, but awkward jumping mechanics dull the appeal. The same imprecise controls make for a frustrating jaunt across a series of aircraft. Vehicle-based missions fare no better. Loose controls and inconsistent collision detection make a flight through a warehouse feel choppy and clumsy, and getting in the cockpit of a lunar lander leads to similar gracelessness. Riding around on a big dinosaur skeleton is more fun, but ho-hum sound effects and weak, cartoonish visuals take away the bite that these moments need to succeed.
There are collectables to gather and trophies to earn for your display case, but there's very little reason to return to Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian once you're done, which means that you've just relived the film in about the same amount of time it takes to watch, but at four times the cost. It's too bad that the game offers so little value for its price (it would have worked far better as a less expensive downloadable product), because it features some nice ideas that should have been taken even further.