I was dreading Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, until I saw the trailer, and actually laughed at a few of the jokes. That's because I thought the first movie was one of the lamer films to come out the of Ben Stiller ouevre - well below Zoolander and hanging out slightly below Dodgeball on the Stiller scale. And maybe I'm not a big fan of Stiller's borscht-belt humor. But I felt the first Museum was moribundly slow, overly pretentious, and leaden with Stiller shtick. Yes, the coming to life was a cool concept, but it was buried under too much schmaltz and plot device to be worth wading through.
So I'm pleased to report that the sequel vastly improves upon the original. Gone is the over-long backstory setup (Stiller's character, Larry Daley, is now a successful inventor, and that's all we need know). Gone, too, is most of Stiller's camping for the camera (there are just a few such moments) and the lard ass direction of venerable comedians like Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney. Instead of trying to create a Ben Stiller movie with a cool "coming to life" effect, the makers of the sequel have a much clearer idea of who the audience for this film is: little kids. And they have gone after them squarely.
Pretty much all of the original museum come-to-lifers are recruited for this second chance at Stiller humor, including Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, and Owen Wilson as the tiny Jedediah Smith and Steve Coogan as his miniature rival, Octavius. This time, the exhibits at New York's Natural History Museum are being shipped down to the Smithsonian for long-term storage. When Ankmenrah's tablet ends up going with them, it comes into the posession of his elder brother, Kahmunrah (played with sniveling effetery by Hank Azaria). Azaria's performance of this cream-puff villain is aimed squarely at the Sponge-Bob Squarepants set. Meanwhile, the tablet performs its same magic on the creatures at the Smithsonian, pitting them in battle against the visitors from New York and creating the same come-to-life wonder as the first movie.
What makes this outing more bearable is that Stiller is given more of a back seat to the interesting incarnations, which include characters from the Smithsonian archives, the Air and Space Museum, as well as the Lincoln Memorial and the Art Galleries. The creativity of these new animations is quite fun - including the animated art and the industrious NASA flight engineers.
Indeed, this movie ends up being quite an effective advertisement for the art, exhibits, and history stored in the museum. The kids we were sitting with were having a great old time. And if this movie instill in kids an interest or love of visiting the museum, I'll rate it a great success.
As for the adults who accompany them, well, you could do worse for two hours. You could have to see the original. At least Jonah Hill has an uncredited walk-on as a security guard, the animated artwork is cool, and Amy Adams makes a passable Emilia Erhart.
So how would I rate this film? If you're five years old or less, I'd give it five stars: it's a classic, right up there with Teletubbies and Spongebob. When it comes to entertaining little kids, these guys hit the nail on the head. For everyone else, I'd give it two. So that's how I get to my average of three.