Warning: though the following review is written about a family-friendly movie, some of the language found herein is very naughty indeed. Please click the "back" button, impressionable young readers!
As far as I'm aware, nobody is actually all that fond of Night at the Museum, a film that rather unnecessarily made over $250 million upon its release during the Christmas season of 2006 to become the second-highest-grossing movie of that year. At any rate, I've never once heard of somebody saying, "That Night at the Museum picture, that was pretty fantastic. I sure did love it, and I am very eager to see it again at the first chance I get." This is as it should be: Night at the Museum is altogether dumb. Not "entertainingly dumb", nor "watchably dumb", nor "reassuringly, comfortingly dumb". It's just a dumb movie, the kind that advertising campaigns convince kids to beg their parents to go see it, the kind that childless adults and teens go to see because apparently everybody else is, so it must be some kind of fun. It is not, maybe, dangerously dumb; I would never seek to call it a vile motion picture. Indeed, its dumbness is somewhat restful, the kind of thing that you go to see, and find your mind drifting to other places, like the bills you have to pay this week, the wonderful dinner you had last night, landscaping design, whether you should ask out that cute girl who looked like she wanted to talk to you after class, and all sorts of other things that are not the movie itself.
That said, it did make a staggering and unexpected $250+ million, and that means that it was going to get a sequel, and if all the moviegoers of America and the world weren't clamoring for another chapter in the story of intrepid museum guard Larry Daley, fuck 'em. Open it on Memorial Day weekend, precede it with a large enough ad campaign, and people will show up whether they want to or not. Which is exactly what seems to have happened.
Now, about that sequel, the crudely-named Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian: it is not restfully dumb. And it is certainly not entertainingly, nor watchably, nor comfortingly dumb. It is atrociously dumb, the kind of bad movie whose badness achieves a kind of rarefied fairy tale wickedness. It is the kind of movie that leaves me feeling that the quality of my life has been lessened: not because I saw the movie, but because the movie exists at all. If this is the state that successful children's entertainment has reached in this country, I fear for the generation of soul-starved vampires that will be coming to power in about 25 years.
Battle of the Smithsonian returns us to the company of Larry, played as before by the increasingly useless Ben Stiller (sure, Tropic Thunder was just last summer, but before that, you have to go all the way back to 2001 and The Royal Tenenbaums). Since we last saw him, Larry has quit his job as night watchman at New York's Museum of Natural History to become a successful paid-programming inventor and pitchman on the Ron Popeil model; his current big hit is a glow-in-the-dark flashlight - not actually a new invention, but let's run with it. In his rare free time, Larry still visits the museum to spend some time with his friends there, the display figures that magically come to life every night thanks to the magic of an ancient Egyptian tablet held by the Pharaoh Akhmenrah. On the day the new movie opens, Larry arrives for the first time in months, to learn that most of the displays are being moved into storage in the federal archives under the Smithsonian, which means that for most of his historical buddies, this will be their last night of life.
Ah, but the thieving monkey Dexter, who caused such mirthless hijinks last time, endeavors to steal the tablet on the way out, and Larry gets an alarmed call one night from the miniature cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), saying that something horrible is happening in Washington. So off he goes, to find that a new mummy has plans for the tablet: a villainous sort named Kahmunrah, played by Hank Azaria with a slight British accent and a heavy lisp that I assume is meant to be an affectionate parody of Boris Karloff, cinema's most famous mummy, but comes across as a pointless, irritating affection that grows old within seconds of its introduction. Kahmunrah has designs on using the tablet to open a gate to the underworld and calling forth an undead army to take over the world.
So Larry has but one night to stop Kahmunrah, and he enlists an all-star cast of historical figures to help him: old friends like Jedediah, the centurion Octavius (Steve Coogan), Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), and new faces like General George Custer (Bill Hader) and Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams). But Kahmunrah has put together a rogues gallery all his own, including Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest)*, Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) and Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat).
As in the previous film, the actual plot is devoured whole by "wouldn't it be cool if" moments: wouldn't it be cool if Larry jumped into that photo of the sailor kissing the girl on V-J day? Wouldn't it be cool if all the exhibits in the Air and Space museum came to life and were flying about all crazy-like? Wouldn't it be cool if famous statues, some of which aren't even located in the United States, let alone the Smithsonian, got up and walked around and talked? The answer tends, in most cases, to be "no, it would be bombastic and pointless". Of course, since Battle of the Smithsonian, like the first Night at the Museum, was directed by Shawn Levy, this isn't at all surprising. Levy, as merciless a hack as American filmmaking has right now, is a filmmaker who will at no point go for a grace note when a blaring trumpet in a flat key will do the the trick.
If the first film made some small feint in the direction of being all pro-museum and learning, in between the extended passages of crazy shit bobbing about in every direction, the new film replaces those tiny moments with a cheerful ignorance of anything and everything historic: from the collection of artworks that are not technically present at the Smithsonian to the hash made of nearly every one of the non-American characters (especially poor Napoleon), and even some of the Americans: no way is Custer going to have a nice conversation with an Indian woman, like we see here. But complaining about the history in this film is like complaining that fish piss in the sea. I just had to get it off of my chest, because it is part of what pushes the film from "unenjoyable" to "foul".
The last little thing there might be to enjoy is the big ensemble, but they're almost all wasted: Azaria on his accent, Guest on being a second-tier villain, Coogan on being separated from everyone else for almost all of his screentime. Jonah Hill gets a sort of cameo where he demonstrates his most annoying tendencies in a back and forth with Stiller that goes on for about twelve hours; Ricky Gervais walks onscreen and delivers a couple of lines in that shrill squeak that he does when he's acting angry, and then heads off the deposit his paycheck in what I pray is the fund for a new BBC sitcom. Adams is probably the most frustrating thing in the movie: her cheerful persona is ratcheted up to unendurable levels as the film's romantic co-lead - yes, the film posits a romance between Larry and Amelia Earhart, and it's just as godawful as it sounds. Worse than that, the screenplay saddles her with a litany of peppy Depression-era euphemisms that are so old-timey, homespun and squeaky-clean, that when she actually says "dammit" in one scene, it's as jarring a profanity as if Mickey Mouse were to refer to Minnie as a filthy cunt.
As for the Jonas Brothers as a trio of pop-singing Cupid statues: the Jonas Brothers are in the film, as pop-singing Cupid statues, and if that doesn't fill you with acidic tears, then damn your eyes.
I cannot imagine how anyone would manage to scrape any entertainment out of this hellish thing at all. Some of the jokes work, a couple of them actually even work really well. And many of the sequences - I can hardly call them "scenes", as they do not follow each other naturally, nor add up to anything cohesive - must have seemed very cool when they were first set to paper. But there's a long path between first draft and the screen, and everything cool in Battle of the Smithsonian has long since been ground under the heel of indifference and sloppiness and hate. This is no kind of fun movie at all: it is a horrid, brainless thing that makes no sense, treats history and our nation's finest museum recklessly, and is no more magical than the sterile pitch meeting where the whole soulless affair was birthed.