Magazine article The New Yorker

Art Attack

Magazine article The New Yorker

Art Attack

Article excerpt

Bleary-eyed parents, packed in alongside their children at the new sequel "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"--the tale of an Egyptian tchotchke that brings a museum's exhibits to life every night--may sit up one touch less bleary-eyed as they see on the screen, among the whizzing biplanes and marauding Egyptian warriors, a handful of newly enlivened works of blue-chip modern art. There is an animated (and occasionally talkative) Degas ballerina, a Jackson Pollock poured painting, a Mark Rothko rectangle, Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks," a Calder stabile, a weeping girl by Roy Lichtenstein, and even a Jeff Koons balloon puppy.

If the startled parent managed to reach Shawn Levy, the Montreal-born auteur who created the "N.A.T.M." franchise, he or she would learn that inserting the art collection within the broader lines of the farce was a personal project, born equally of the desire to enlarge the range of the movie and to make his two young daughters more interested in museumgoing. "We knew we wanted more art work coming to life," Levy said, over the phone from Los Angeles. "We wanted it to seem rich, not just louder and messier. The idea of having Rodin's 'Thinker' come to life was there in the script, and so was the idea of having Ben Stiller end up in the Eisenstadt photograph of V-J Day. But I quickly realized that I had this massive art-gallery set that needed to be filled. So I started making a mental list of art, even so-called difficult art, that I would like to see come alive. I curated a dream exhibit, combining works of art that never get to be under the same roof. The fun was imagining what each piece would be like if it could interact with the other pieces."

Acquiring the rights to depict the art works in the movie was a minor procedural nightmare (lubricated, presumably, by studio cash). "We had to ask permission from each of the artists or their estates, and it was a double clearance issue--not only asking permission to show the work but also to animate it. The one artist who turned us down outright was Claes Oldenburg. I wanted to use his clothespin. I wrote Oldenburg a letter saying that his whimsy, the re-perception of the pedestrian, was much the same as what I was trying to do in the movie. But he seemed unmoved by the argument." Jasper Johns allowed the producers to use one of his pictures-- "Three Flags," from 1958--but would not give them permission to animate it. …

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