Like its predecessor, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is a mix of genuinely funny performances and highly lazy storytelling. You know how it goes: the plot is inane, but a lot of the dialogue makes you laugh. It's hard to respect a movie like that -- but, then again, I'm pretty sure "respect" isn't really what they were going for anyway.
In the sequel, Larry Daley, the hapless former security guard played by Ben Stiller, is now a successful TV pitchman, having invented such handy products as the glow-in-the-dark flashlight. It's been a couple years since he visited his pals at the American Museum of Natural History -- you know, the exhibits and models that come to life after dark, thanks to the magic of an Egyptian artifact -- and when he does, he's alarmed to learn that most of them are being shipped off to the Smithsonian archives in Washington D.C., where they'll sit in storage crates for the foreseeable future.
This is progress, it seems. Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), Larry's old boss, tells him that people are bored with dioramas and wax figures. They want holograms and robots. All these old-fashioned pieces are going to be replaced with state-of-the-art technology like a talking Teddy Roosevelt -- which, strangely, speaks with the same voice as the waxwork Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams) from the first film. What, did the graphic artists who created the computer program see him come to life late one night and record his voice? (Sorry. I'll try to keep that sort of thing to a minimum for the rest of the review.)
After everything has been consigned to the Smithsonian's basement, Larry gets a panicked phone call from one of the tiny reanimated diorama figures, a cowboy named Jedediah (Owen Wilson), who somehow not only dialed the phone but knew Larry's number. They're in trouble! Come quick! Larry hops on a plane to Washington and eventually gains access to the archives, thanks to the Smithsonian having an elaborate interactive model of its schematics and blueprints online. It's almost as if they WANT people to sneak down there after hours and mess with stuff!
It seems the life-giving Egyptian artifact, which looks like a golden muffin pan, has been found, and an evil old pharaoh wannabe named Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) has been resurrected. Once he figures out how to use the artifact, he'll summon his undead army and take over the world. What he doesn't realize, of course, is that he only has until dawn to do it, at which point he'll turn into a statue again.
Don't be put off by the intense-sounding story, though. Great care is taken to ensure that Kahmunrah is menacing only in a comical way, and Hank Azaria -- a hero in the Simpsons universe but hit-or-miss in his live-action roles -- proves invaluable to the film's success. Kahmunrah speaks in an exaggeratedly "royal" accent, more British than Egyptian, and uses modern diction and euphemisms. My rough estimate is that Azaria (who also voices the Honest Abe statue from the Lincoln Memorial, and Rodin's "The Thinker") was responsible for 75 percent of the laughs I got out of the film.
Stiller's fine, too, of course. A few scenes (the ones that don't rely on special effects) permit him to loosen up and improvise with his co-stars, which leads to some funny moments with Azaria, with Jonah Hill as a zealous security guard, and with Amy Adams as Amelia Earhart, who (I guess?) had been a mannequin before being brought to life. While most of the film's characters, no matter how ancient, speak rather amusingly in 21st-century lingo (there is some debate over whether Kahmunrah is wearing a dress or a tunic), Amelia Earhart talks in 1930s slang.
Steve Coogan is back as Octavius, a Roman figurine. New characters include Christopher Guest as Ivan the Terrible (who says the correct translation is "awesome," not "terrible"), Bill Hader as a preening and shallow Gen. Custer ("Act first, think later!" he declares while rushing recklessly into battle), and Jon Bernthal as Al Capone (rendered in black and white, which is a nice touch). Various other historical people and creatures show up as required by the story.
Ah yes, the story. Once again directed by Shawn Levy (Cheaper by the Dozen) and written by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon (The Pacifier, Balls of Fury), Battle of the Smithsonian suffers from the same tacked-on message and heavy-handed sentimentality as its predecessor. The story's resolution doesn't make any sense at all, and seems like an ending you'd put in as a placeholder until you could come up with something smarter. Luckily, it's easy enough to ignore those elements and just enjoy the fun.