You know how animated movies of a certain ilk will hire a lot of famous funny people to do voices, hoping to entertain adults but somehow sucking out everything that makes those famous people appealing to begin with? That's essentially what happens, in a live-action way, in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, a movie so stuffed with celebrities that the likes of Christopher Guest and Steve Coogan barely make an impact. Other familiar faces, like Amy Adams and Bill Hader, fare a little better, but are still doing all they can just to keep their heads above the din of this noisy, overstuffed sequel.
Ben Stiller is back again as the master of ceremonies, former Natural History Museum night guard Larry Daley, now a TV pitchman who, surprise surprise, is unhappy with his life despite his riches. He maintains his attachment to his former friends at the museum the way children linger over stuffed animals, going back to visit tiny cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson), tiny Roman soldier Octavius (Coogan), life-size Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams) and all the others when the museum's lights are off for the night. One visit turns out to be the last, though, when Larry discovers the dusty old exhibits are being shipped off to storage at the Smithsonian, the giant network of museums in Washington, D.C.
Of course it's only a matter of time before Larry's inanimate-by-day friends need him again, and because of something about a tablet and a cranky pharaoh (Hank Azaria) who wants to one-up his brother, Larry is on an all-night adventure across the many Smithsonians, joined by spunky Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams). Other new characters popping up this time are manifold, including the villainous Napoleon (Alain Chabat), Ivan the Terrible (Guest) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), but most notable are the self-aggrandizing, hilarious General Custer (Bill Hader, bless him), and weirdly enough, a statue of Abraham Lincoln from the Lincoln Memorial, come to life (and voiced by Azaria, obviously).
There's a lot of fun to be had in some minor cameos, from works of art-- Monet's waterlilies come to life like a neon sign-- to virtually half the cast of The Office. But it all goes by so quickly, as Larry flies (sometimes literally) between exhibits and characters barely have time to toss out a joke before moving on to the next big obstacle.The script by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant makes little effort toward combining character moments and action, meaning that characters will stand around and make jokes (or, in one instance, get punched in the head by monkeys) while slowing the story to a halt. Jonah Hill's brief appearance as a security guard is funny, but it makes no sense for Larry to kid around with him while supposedly on an urgent mission. Same goes for the moments of romance between Amelia Earhart and Larry that, while touching, have nothing to do with the story at hand. Plus, she's a wax figurine. Way to make it awkward.
None of this will matter to the primary audience of children, who will laugh at the funny and not-so-funny jokes and enjoy a confirmation, once again, of their secret suspicion that everything comes to life when they're not looking. But it's a shame that director Shawn Levy feels the need to talk down to them, pausing the film for laughs and over-explaining the rudimentary plot. Plus he manages to bring in Ricky Gervais and render him completely unfunny, a baffling crime against the audience for which he must one day atone.
So take your kids, enjoy the zooming action and the slightly nerdy reverence for the past, and try not to think about what this delightful concept might have been in the hands of a tighter, more aware director. It's not the worst family friendly movie you can find, and hey, at least it throws in a little history along the way.