Review: The special effects—but not the script—make Night at the Museum 2 worth a visit

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

If there's one thing you can't label Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, it's boring. Chaotic, sure. Frenetic, absolutely. Funny? Well, that depends. If you're under the age of 13, a lot of this busy film is probably going to be hysterical. Slap-happy monkeys, a lisping pharaoh and even tween singing cherubs play broadly to the younger set. But anyone older is going to have a tough time rating this certainly colorful but often corny and disjointed sequel as anything other than a cute summer family pleaser.

The sequel picks up two years after the original and finds Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) is no longer the night guard at New York's Museum of Natural History but a successful infomercial product inventor. On the fast track to fame and fortune, Larry's got little time for his magical friends back at the museum. So, on an impromptu return visit, he's shocked to find out major changes are afoot. Curator Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) informs Larry that they are boxing up the older exhibit figures and sending them to the Smithsonian archives in Washington D.C. to make room for new high-tech exhibits.

The news hits Larry hard as he recognizes that the fun and friendship that he gained from those magically awakened display figures has all but vanished in his new, serious, corporate life. And no sooner does he tell son Nick (the returning Jake Cherry, who appears in what amounts to a cameo) about their friends' fates than lo and behold, the phone rings. It's miniature cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) calling from a very large phone in D.C., where he begs Larry to come rescue the stored figures from some unnamed danger.

As it turns out, that pesky capuchin monkey Dexter has managed to pry a souvenir away from their old home, the magical Egyptian tablet that brings museum denizens to life after sundown. In D.C., the tablet has awakened the Boris Karloff-sounding Egyptian ruler Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), who is bent on bringing his army back to life for a fresh bout of world domination. It's up to Larry to contain the chaos behind the scenes as he infiltrates the bowels of the Smithsonian archives. Together with old friends Jedediah, Octavius (Steve Coogan), Teddy Roosevelt's bust (Robin Williams) and Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck), Larry drafts a gaggle of newly reanimated figures, including Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), Gen. Custer (Bill Hader) and even the Lincoln Memorial's stone figure, to unite against Kahmunrah's posse of Napolean (Alain Chabat), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) and Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest).

If that list of characters seemed like an exercise in overkill, try watching this overly packed film, which suffers from a bad case of creative bloat. Perhaps a little too enamored of the location of their sequel, returning screenwriters Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garant craft a narrative that's akin to a hyperactive kid in a candy store. Sure, the 19 museums of the Smithsonian are the gold standard of inspiration, but do you have to include all of them in one movie? Don't get me wrong, the scribes do create some very cool moments, like a NASA launch sequence in the main lobby of the Air and Space Museum, and Amelia Earhart flying the Wright brothers' plane across the National Mall, but there are an awful lot of characters that get short shrift or one-note attention. Christopher Guest is criminally underused as Ivan the Terrible, and Hader's Custer gets set up for some historical character redemption that just gets forgotten in the climactic melee.

Yet with so many characters, there are some standouts. Amy Adams adds some great Hepburn-style energy to the film with her sassy take on Earhart. Her kooky, rat-a-tat language is over-the-top fun, and it works better than the forced romance the film tries to create between her and Stiller's straight man Daley. Alain Chabat gets one of the film's most genuinely hilarious moments as Napolean trying to suss out that aforementioned chemistry. And Hank Azaria hams his way through the picture as Kahmunrah, spouting out anachronistic, lispy riffs on everything from tiny Jedediah in a birdcage to the brain-melting, pop-culture convergence of Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch.

But the one unequivocal success of the film is Shawn Levy's fun direction of all the vast visual effects. While it would be CG overkill in plenty of other films, Battle of the Smithsonian actually works best when Larry and his crew are experiencing some of the most iconic statues, art or historical figures coming to life. In particular, the film is at its most magical and original when Larry and Amelia get to enter photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt's classic "V-J Day in Times Square" and walk around in black and white as ticker tape falls around them.

Unfortunately, that originality doesn't last for most of the scripted jokes or setups, which rarely hit the levels of hilarity they should, considering the talent involved. Yes, it's primarily a kid's film, but that's no excuse for not even attempting to try and entertain smartly for both youngsters and adults. Even Looney Tunes cartoons figured out that formula half a century ago.

In the end, when Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian works, it's solely on the strengths of its visuals and some inspired riffs from its talented cast. But by the film's end, there aren't going to be many wishing for another installment of this franchise to see the light of day.