It’s clear that Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was crafted with kids in mind, just like the franchise’s original 2006 blockbuster. But if you aren’t enchanted and a little thrilled by the sequel’s setting—much of it takes place at the National Gallery and Air and Space Museum—well, you probably hate puppies and sunshine, too.
In the hands of returning director Shawn Levy and writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (Reno 911), the conceit of the first movie—that after the tourists are ushered out museum exhibits come to life—still applies. And so a Dégas ballerina bows to a reanimated Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams). A woman in a Roy Lichtenstein painting weeps. Earhart and Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), the heroic night guard of both films, even enter the black-and-white world of that V-J Day kiss. “Wow, four bars in 1945!” Larry says, checking his cell.
Battle of the Smithsonian’s effects may not be as remarkable as Terminator Salvation’s, but what makes this sequel immensely entertaining is its humor. Stiller, Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams, and Steve Coogan reprise their roles, bolstered by a galaxy’s worth of comedic stars: Bill Hader, Hank Azaria, Christopher Guest, Jonah Hill, and Owen Wilson.
Garant and Lennon may be the official scripters here, but the improv is obvious as each actor delivres a signature stroke: Hill’s single appearance as a guard is sarcastic and breathlessly hilarious. Hader plays Gen. Custer as a vain goofball. (He’s once caught brushing his hair, counting, “98, 99…bingo! Ah, my golden fleece!”) Azaria, though, gets the most screentime alongside Stiller and Adams, and his ancient King Kahmunrah lisps like Family Guy’s Stewie while delivering Simpsons-worthy one-liners. He easily steals the show, with Stiller graciously watering down his own sarcasm, often playing the straight man.
The plot, too, is respectable: Larry is now a successful gadget-inventor and has left his position at New York’s Museum of Natural History. But when he comes back to visit, he’s told by the museum’s curator (Gervais, brilliant even in a small role) that many of the old exhibits are being shipped to the Smithsonian and will likely remain crated or be destroyed. So Larry hightails it to D.C. and finds that he not only has to make sure his pals are safe, he has to battle the freshly resurrected Kahmunrah, who has all sorts of evil in mind. Earhart tags along snapping ’30s-era slang, both because she’s a little sweet on Larry but mostly because, she says, “I smell adventure, and I want in!”
Adams’ Earhart is as good as viewers’ own eyes, excited by the exhibits she sees and the technological progress of humans. The film’s climax takes place in the Air and Space Museum, with everyone in the history books itching to take a ride. It’s an exhilarating sequence, and reinforces the movie’s light message about dedicating your life to whatever brings you joy. Battle of the Smithsonian may be a blip on your radar in terms of how you spend your time, but it’s nearly two hours of happiness worth pursuing.