Living history

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

“Honestly, Abe. Shoot straight with us.”

“Honestly, Abe. Shoot straight with us.”

Rated 3.0

There’s an awful lot going on in the amusing trifle Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, even more than in 2006’s original—equally amusing, equally trifling—Night at the Museum. Writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon and director Shawn Levy go the usual sequel route: They take what they consider the big hook from the original and double down on it, spending more money and time trying to outdo what they think they did right the first time. For Levy, Garant and Lennon, this translates to more special effects and more exhibits coming to life in a bigger museum.

What they really did right the first time, though, was to put Ben Stiller (as night guard Larry Daley) and his wide-eyed perplexity at the center of their hurricane of animated statues, dioramas and dinosaur skeletons, and to contrast his character’s timorous, struggling divorced dad with the beaming, bluff, confident Theodore Roosevelt (the brilliantly cast Robin Williams).

This time around, Roosevelt’s participation is cut back to little more than a horseback ride-through, but Levy and Co. must have sensed the need to once again match Larry’s 21st-century insecurity with a more vigorous symbol of America on the move, and they’ve come up with something just as inspired as Williams playing Roosevelt: Amy Adams as the pioneering feminist aviator Amelia Earhart. Or at least an idea of Amelia Earhart as a spunky, sharp-talking 1930s movie heroine, a combination of Jean Harlow and the screwball-comedy side of Irene Dunne—in fact, Earhart as an example of what film-studies majors used to call a “Howard Hawks woman.”

Adams is just the actress who can pull it off, too. She has movie-star beauty, impeccable acting technique and an instinctive understanding of the center-out differences between people of different historical eras. She proves it late in the movie, when she reappears in a second role as a woman in 2009—her posture, her voice timbre and even her breathing are all different. Let’s not mince words: Adams is a national treasure, and it’s one of the quirky ironies of movies that she demonstrates it more clearly and sharply in this piece of lightweight kiddie-bait than she did in the pretentiously modest Sunshine Cleaning.

Besides Adams, there are other new faces on display to go with those returning for the sequel (Stiller, Williams, Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as the tiny cowboy and Roman figurines): Christopher Guest as Ivan the Terrible, Alain Chabat as Napoleon, Bill Hader as George Armstrong Custer and Jon Bernthal as Al Capone. And the movie certainly gets its money’s worth out of Hank Azaria; he not only plays the movie’s chief villain, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh bent on world domination (Azaria does a hilarious sendup of Boris Karloff in the original 1932 The Mummy), but he also supplies the voices for two magically animated statues, Rodin’s “Thinker” and, less successfully, the Honest Abe of the Lincoln Memorial (for some bizarre reason, Azaria seems to think Lincoln had a British accent).

The plot of Battle of the Smithsonian is hardly worth going into; it recycles and expands on Night at the Museum’s silliness about a magic Egyptian tablet, and it leaves Milan Trenc’s original book even further in the dust. Larry Daley’s museum-exhibit buddies get moved to the so-called “Federal Archive” under the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Larry has to search the underground archive to find them, getting directions by cell phone from his son, back home at his computer. (What did lazy movie writers do before the invention of the Internet and the personal computer?) This is a sequel that was made for one reason, and one reason only: The first movie made $250 million, and the only way to squeeze more money out of it was to do it all over again, only more so.

But what the heck, it’s fun on the same level as the original, and it seasons the action with just enough solid information to convey to kids the idea that history can be fun.

Besides, it has Amy Adams, and she is, if anything, a treasure too valuable to stay locked up at the Smithsonian.