Bigger and even more chaotically crowded (more stars! more f/x!) than its predecessor, “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” proves that adding another ring doesn’t make for a better circus. Swapping Gotham’s Natural History Museum for D.C.’s Smithsonian, this “Night at the Museum” sequel reunites Ben Stiller’s ex-security guard with former cast members and adds dozens more. But where the original had a vaguely tenable narrative hook (deadbeat dad finds redemption through nocturnal heroics), the new pic seems purely a vehicle for lavish visuals and cheap gags. Still, the 2006 comedy-adventure soared past tepid reviews to a $574 million global B.O.; chances are this “Night” also will be a mammoth success.
The woolly mammoth that stomped through the original is back, albeit briefly, as now-successful inventor/entrepreneur Larry Daley (Stiller) revisits his old digs, the Museum of Natural History, and we’re briefly reminded of the ancient curse that caused the museum denizens to spring to life. Still there: the miniature figurines Octavius (Steve Coogan) and Jedediah (Owen Wilson); a playful dinosaur fossil and mischievous monkey; and a waxworks Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams).
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But when museum director Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) explains that the longtime exhibits are about to be shipped to D.C.’s Federal Archives, discarded in favor of high-tech holographic displays, Larry realizes he may never see the gang again.
That doesn’t seem to bother him too much until he receives a distress call from Jed telling him the grumpy Egyptian ruler Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria, sounding like a cross between Daffy Duck and Jeremy Irons) has awakened from a 3,000-year rest only to set his sights on global domination. Urged by his son (Jake Cherry), Larry speeds to the Smithsonian, steals a badge from an easily impressed junior guard (Jonah Hill) and breaks into the archives.
Amid a virtual sea of storage crates — there’s even a leviathan squid! — Larry finds the gang and tries to engineer an escape. Plucky Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams, trying a bit too hard) joins him, only to be matched by a trio of history’s worst villains: Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon (French comic Alain Chabat) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), who’ve united with Kahmunrah to create the ultimate axis of evil.
But wait, there’s more: Abe Lincoln (also voiced by Azaria) steps out of his chair at the Lincoln Memorial to pitch in, Albert Einstein (voiced by Eugene Levy) helps solve a mathematical riddle, and Gen. George Custer (Bill Hader) stands around trying to decide what to do.
If there’s no kitchen sink in here, it’s probably because the filmmakers (returning helmer Shawn Levy and scribes Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon) couldn’t devise a way to work one in. Instead of adding a plethora of new distractions, perhaps they should have focused on Larry’s motivation. He seems to have very little at stake in this battle, and it’s tough to know why we’re supposed to root for him.
One clever new element involves the animating of classic artworks (among them Degas’ “Little Dancer”; Wood’s “American Gothic,” Hopper’s “Nighthawks”). The gimmick works to varying effect — sometimes brilliantly (the sight of Jeff Koons’ “Balloon Dog Red” hopping about is priceless); sometimes offensively (did Rodin’s “Thinker” really need a Bronx accent?).
One all-too-brief sequence even has Larry and Amelia jumping into the celebrated Alfred Eisenstaedt Times Square photo “The Kiss,” surrounded by WWII veterans against a black-and-white cityscape. (It also sets up a joke that will pay off later; watch for Jay Baruchel in a quickie cameo.)
The chaos escalates into a whiz-bang collision of f/x involving the Octopus, the Wright Brothers, the Tuskegee airmen and too much of everything but what made Larry likable in the first film. Production design and lensing and general tech credits are top notch, even if Alan Silvestri’s score is overblown.
There is, however, one very positive consequence of the original film worth noting: In the wake of “Night at the Museum,” the Museum of Natural History reported attendance was up 20%, particularly among kids whose interest was sparked by the film. The museum even began hosting Night at the Museum Sleepovers that still continue. If the Smithsonian sees a similar attendance surge and an increased interest in art and history thanks to this movie, then this “Night at the Museum” may be worth the trouble.