The words “a Shawn Levy film” go a long way toward proving the auteur theory. There is certainly a consistency of tone running throughout Just Married (2003), Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), The Pink Panther (2006), Night at the Museum (2006) and now Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. That the tone is almost entirely shrill and overblown—with a tendency to mistake loud and busy for funny—attests to the fact that auteur status isn’t a barometer of quality. More’s the pity.
I’d actually held out some slight hope for this film—hope predicated on the idea that the movie had Amy Adams in it. Those hopes didn’t quite pan out. Others were similarly snookered. Friends of mine attended the screening and lasted up through the point that the movie inflicted CGI cherub versions of the Jonas Brothers singing “More Than a Woman” on us. While I’m sure they felt as edified as I to learn (based on the on-screen evidence) what had previously only been a suspicion (that the Jonases are bereft of genitalia) this afforded them sufficient provocation for departing the theater. I envied them. Hell, by this point I was envying Justin Souther for getting to review Dance Flick instead of this.
Granting that the sub-Thorne Smith whimsy of the first movie’s premise was already pretty thin—the displays in a museum come to life during the night thanks to a magical doodad—the sequel feels desperate in its attempts to stretch it out further. The already nonexistent reasoning as to why wax effigies and even 3-inch-tall toy figures would embody the characteristics of their late historical counterparts is only compounded here, but it’s safe to say that no one much cares about this aspect of the whole high-concept notion. And in truth, it really doesn’t matter—or it wouldn’t if there were even a hint of inspiration or wit, but there isn’t.
The new movie is more of the same, with more money and less plot thrown at it. This round Larry (Ben Stiller) has to come to the rescue of his reanimated friends when they get shipped to the Smithsonian for storage after being replaced with more state-of-the-art displays. The real problem isn’t the relocation, however, but rather that Dexter the stuffed monkey has taken the magical thingamabob with him and reawakened the ill-tempered Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) by doing so. Since no one knows what ancient Egyptians sounded like, Azaria spends the film doing a pretty credible Boris Karloff impression, presumably because Karloff starred in The Mummy (as the mummy) back in 1932.
That fits the logic of the movie, I guess, since Amelia Earhart (Adams) enters the proceedings asking, “What’s the rumpus?” as if she just saw a screening of Miller’s Crossing. Unfortunately, that proves to be the key in which her entire role is conceived—with every line written in faux 1920s jazz-baby speak—and it quickly becomes tiresome. But then everybody gets the one-joke treatment—and then gets to repeat that joke endlessly. Azaria comes off the best, while Adams almost gets by just for being fetching in her aviatrix outfit, but the others aren’t so lucky, especially Bill Hader as a preening General Custer. He wears out his welcome almost as fast as the Jonas Brothers do.
As with the first film, the effects are variable to say the least. The matching of the tiny Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan toy characters to the full-size characters once more looks like crappy rear-screen work from an old B picture. All in all, this sequel’s greatest claim to fame lies in turning its innocuously painless original into an overblown bore. That shouldn’t be possible, since there’s much less Robin Williams this time, but Shawn Levy defies the odds and manages to pull it off anyway. Now, that is an auteur at work. Rated PG for mild action and brief language.