The first installment of Night at the Museum may have been a pithy, middle-of-the-road, comedy lark with top-notch special effects, but when it grossed a half-billion dollars worldwide, its days as an inoffensive guilty pleasure (and you’d be surprised how many self-professed film snobs held it close to their chests, this reviewer not among them) were over.
Now, the history-comes-alive scenario created by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (the genius duo responsible for the TV shows The State and Reno 911!) has been upgraded, trading safe comedy legends like Dick Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney for an army of today’s funniest creative minds: Hank Azaria, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Jonah Hill, and the returning Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais, all of whom absolutely electrify the screen with their presence. That’s a good thing, since this high-energy, special-effects bonanza could easily interrupt itself with abstract conversational asides for as long as the editor allows.
Those asides and, surprisingly, Ben Stiller himself, save Smithsonian from its earnest, parent-friendly, Bill and Ted-history-for-dummies setup. Academy Award nominee Amy Adams approaches unwatchability with her Blanchett-as-Hepburn-in-The Aviator imitation of Amelia Earhart; her lack of chemistry and dumb flapper-speak (which she thankfully eases off after Stiller’s character meta-chastises her for using the word “jimmy-jacked,” which he says, “sounds made up, even for you”) nearly sinks the production. And in another bizarre choice, returning Museum alum Owen Wilson as cowboy Jedediah Smith, the heart of the first film, is miniaturized in relevance as well as actual size. His entire arc involves his imprisonment, first in a shipping container (along with nearly everyone else from the first film, a not-so-subtle hand-wash), then on the losing end of an hourglass which threatens to off him if Stiller doesn’t retrieve some password or another for Azaria’s evil purposes.
When the original characters are let out of the box for a final battle that utterly demolishes the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. — if you notice that no alarms are tripped by these events, then this isn’t the movie for you — Smithsonian whips itself into a kind of frenzied exhilaration that’s both fun and funny.