"Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"

Historical characters come back to hysterical life in this sequel to the charming megahit starring Ben Stiller

Published May 22, 2009 10:22AM (EDT)

The idea behind the 2006 megahit "Night at the Museum" had enough inherent charm that it was completely possible to look beyond the movie's clunky structure and overly sentimental framing device and just enjoy the ride. Ben Stiller played Larry Daley, a divorced dad who, after failing at numerous other careers (and thus coming to feel he'd become a disappointment to his young son) takes a job as a night watchman at the Museum of Natural History in New York, only to find that the exhibits come alive at night. The "father proving his worth to his kid" thing aside, "Night at the Museum" offered numerous delights: A fabulous T. rex skeleton springs into action, an assemblage of playful, shambling bones (his favorite game is fetch); a tiny cowboy (Owen Wilson) and a Roman centurion (Steve Coogan) emerge from their dioramas and proceed to wreak havoc on the place, albeit on a miniaturized scale.

"Night at the Museum," directed by Shawn Levy and written by the writer-actor duo Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, was such a huge hit that a sequel was inevitable. And so we have, from the same director and writers, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," a more expensive, more complicated and more elaborate picture, though not necessarily a better one. As "Battle of the Smithsonian" opens, we learn that Larry has become an inventor and infomercial mogul (his latest product is a not-very-appealing glow-in-the-dark flashlight), and although he's now financially successful and has built a comfortable life for himself and his son Nicky (Jake Cherry), something's missing. He figures out what it is -- almost -- when he learns that his former workplace is about to be completely redesigned: Its director (played, once again, with amusing superciliousness by Ricky Gervais) has decided that no one cares about looking at dioramas and old bones anymore; museum visitors want talking holograms and interactive displays. So all of Larry's old pals, including crusty and wise Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), the mischievous capuchin monkey Dexter, and the aforementioned cowboy and centurion (once again played by Wilson and Coogan) are being packed up and shipped off, to be stored underground at the Smithsonian Institution for an indefinite period. The mystical Egyptian tablet that allows them to come alive won't be going with them.

Or so they think. Once the "exhibits" reach the Smithsonian, the tablet works its usual magic, and disgruntled Egyptian ruler-dude Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) enlists the help of a bunch of other resuscitated baddies including Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon (Alain Chabat) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) in his plan for world, or at least museum, domination. Larry is called to the rescue and accepts both the help and the affections of one of the Smithsonian's most esteemed denizens, the firecracker adventuress Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams).

There's so much going on in "Battle of the Smithsonian" that the storyline becomes unmanageable and cluttered: The picture would be much more enjoyable if its plot and numerous characters had been streamlined. But at least "Smithsonian" distinguishes itself from its predecessor by coming up with plenty of fresh gags and characters instead of just revisiting all the old ones; it doesn't have the "me too!" desperation of so many sequels. It does offer its share of clever and sometimes wondrous touches -- in one sequence, a group of paintings comes to life, and Roy Lichtenstein's "Crying Girl" sobs audibly, dabbing away at her very real tears. Until the climax, at least, the action in "Battle of the Smithsonian" isn't too manic and noisy. And part of the fun is just watching to see what this cast of lively comic actors will come up with next. Guest's Ivan makes an extremely convincing case for why, in real life, he actually wasn't so Terrible. Coogan the Tiny has a wonderful moment in which he arrives to save the day, mounted on a very special bushy-tailed steed.

But "Battle of the Smithsonian" really belongs to Azaria's Kahmunrah. (Azaria plays two other, smaller roles here, Abraham Lincoln and Rodin's "Thinker," who, much to the dismay of a nearby caryatid cutie, turns out to be an A-1 skirt-chaser.) Azaria channels Boris Karloff in "The Mummy," perfectly mimicking that wonderful actor's rich, sonorous vowels -- and adding an ever-so-slight lisp. When the assembled villains huddle around him to hear his devious plan, they have a few important questions, chief among them, "Why are you wearing a dress?" His dignity ruffled, Kahmunrah informs them that what he is wearing is not a dress: "It ith a tyoonic," he explains with a glimmer of irritation, annoyed that the distinction isn't self-evident. It's bits of silliness like that that keep "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" humming. Whatever its flaws may be, it at least refuses to be a stiff, lifeless relic.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Movies Ricky Gervais