Playing with history
Night at the Museum sequel offers light fun similar to its predecessor
The sequel/follow-up/spin-off of 2006’s Night at the Museum is slight though abundantly endowed entertainment. And like its predecessor, it delivers on its obvious promises fairly consistently, but never really reaches beyond the immediate appeals of those various clever diversions.
Larry the night guard (Ben Stiller) is back, of course, and so are some of the iconic figures who spring to nocturnal life in the first installment—Robin Williams’ gruff and jaunty incarnation of Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wilson’s laconic cowboy hero and Steve Coogan’s sardonic Octavius Caesar (both in miniature, once again), the snooty museum honcho Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), a somewhat tokenized Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), etc. The monkey-slapping routine from 2006 returns as well, but to less hilarious effect this time.
Apart from Wilson and Coogan, the returnees (including Stiller) come close to wearing out whatever welcome they may have had in advance. Fortunately, the sequel gets a good deal of amusement and charm out of the alternate settings (the Smithsonian and Washington, D.C., instead of the Natural History Museum in New York City) and even more from the new arrivals—the fictional pharaoh Kahmunrha (Hank Azaria), a giddy General Custer (Bill Hader), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) and, most striking of all, a dreamily rediscovered Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams).
The whole enterprise gets off to a rather sluggish start and nearly stalls in the plot machinery and half-hearted sketch-comedy required to transport Stiller/Larry back into the night world of the museum, first in NYC and then at the Smithsonian complex in DC. But the Smithsonian sequences yield a number of momentary rewards—including works of art coming to goofy animated life in the National Art Museum and the sight of Earhart flying the Wright Brothers’ plane out of the Air & Space Museum and over the Capitol Mall.
Larry’s incipient screwball romance with Amelia never becomes more than a mildly amusing notion. Nevertheless, Adams’ feistily fantasized performance is the single most captivating element of the film, and Stiller’s talent as a comic performer emerges chiefly in scenes shared with Adams.
Azaria’s lisping pharaoh is the other standout performance in the sequel. I’m guessing that the lisp is at least partly a take-off on Boris Karloff’s diction in certain horror films of the 1930s, but you don’t need to know that to enjoy the fake pharaoh’s comic histrionics. Azaria also supplies the voices for the film’s quirky, animated versions of Abraham Lincoln and Rodin’s “Thinker.”
Guest does a deadpan caricature of Ivan the Terrible as if he were undergoing some kind of intestinal apoplexy. The Albert Einstein bobble-head dolls in the gift shop end up contributing some plot-advancing wisdom. Earhart flies off in the wrong direction near the end. Stiller and Adams take a detour into 1944 via the famous black-and-white photo of a sailor kissing a bobby-soxer in Times Square.
The Battle of the Smithsonian abounds in miscellaneous humor of those sorts. That’s enough to make it into a rambunctious little museum in its own right, joking around in quietly sly, amusing ways amid the not so surprising noise and intermittent flash of yet another made-to-order big-screen spectacle.