As a summer blockbuster, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is more like a mediocre kids’ movie. True, it’s one of those rare cases where the sequel improves upon its predecessor, but this new chapter in the life of Larry the night watchman (Ben Stiller) who sees museum displays come to life didn’t have to work too hard for that distinction. Both movies share a promising premise, and the new one moves from New York’s iconic Natural History Museum to the epic halls of the Smithsonian. But both films also might have been great if they’d only been good.
Some things threaten excellence. The past coming indiscriminately to life, including Teddy Roosevelt, Sacjawea, and Darth Vader, for instance, nicely blurs the line between academic history and pop culture. The film also has Amy Adams, who is beginning to seem like one of life’s truly reliable pleasures, as Amelia Earhart, a gal who brandishes phrases like, “You’ve lost your moxie.” Certain situations develop comic charges, too. Stiller’s face-to-face confrontations with Hank Azaria’s fussy, lisping overlord of an evil pharaoh sparkle with the joy of a childish joke told with perfect timing. The walking Jeff Koons sculpture and enter-able paintings are nice flourishes, too.
But flourishes are all these movies have. The narrative seems like an afterthought. The framing story, for instance, is a piece of trumped-up motivation concerning Larry’s supposed unhappiness as the CEO of his own business. The film tells us that, though in actual scenes he seems pleased to be rich. Larry’s son Nick (Jake Cherry) becomes part of the action and then is summarily dropped. It feels like a porn storyline, just enough connective plot to get us to the something we really paid to see.
But what was that? Nobody seems worried about the point of all this spectacular adventure. Somebody suggests that the whole mannequin uprising was arranged to make Larry a better person, but Stiller plays him alternately lost and smug. He’s a father who abandons his son to help mannequins party all night. Somebody’s had too much moxie.