I admit it: I was a little tough on the first "Night at the Museum." My son and I disagree all the time on movies, yet I suppose it took his delight in the film's simple but surefire premise (to preteens especially) to make me reconsider. Also, repeated encounters with the movie on a family vacation after it came out on DVD didn't hurt. That's the key to revising an opinion upward a half-star or so: hammering repetition.
On the other hand: Is Shawn Levy Mr. Finesse when it comes to directing a special effects-driven comedy? No, he is not. And Ben Stiller has, you know, that, uh, ... way, ... I mean, of ... pausing ... for comic effect that drives me, maybe it's just ... me, but ... a little nuts.
Stiller can be a wickedly savvy actor; certainly he has greater range than he's yet explored. Just as certainly, he has a bit of a blind spot where his own mannerisms are concerned. He has every legal right to keep his hesitation waltz going as long as he's able. But just as George Clooney started getting really good once he got that "ER"-derived head-bobble under control, if Stiller finds a way to Jack Webb it and give it to us straight every so often, we'll listen to everything his characters have to say.
"Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" is breezier than the first "Museum," at least to me, which means in three years I'll be revising my opinion downward. Stiller reprises the role of Larry Daley, the Museum of Natural History night security guard who saved the day in the first film, making peace among the warring tribes and beasts and magically energized figurines. In this "Museum," screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon depict Larry as newly successful. (He has his own home-security gadget company, though, apparently, Carla Gugino's Rebecca has left him.) He's a typical movie workaholic in need of a shake-up.
The setting for the first film, the grand old museum just off Central Park West in New York City, is being reworked as a virtual-reality playground. The old gang, including the mammoth Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), mini-cowboy Jed (Owen Wilson) and micro-Roman Octavius (Steve Coogan), are being shipped off for storage in the bowels of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. As the overexploited antagonist, an Egyptian man-god bent on world domination, Hank Azaria goes the full Boris Karloff. (He also does voice work as Rodin's Thinker and the Abe Lincoln statue from the Lincoln Memorial.) Throw in the Tuskegee Airmen, Ivan the Terrible and Al Capone, and you've got enough characters to pad out two additional sequels.
It's a measure of the script's limitations that, as Ivan, Christopher Guest warrants not a single amusing line. The movie radically improves whenever Amy Adams pops up as aviatrix Amelia Earhart. The flying sequences involving the Wright Brothers' original Kitty Hawk beaut give the film a real lift. And there's an unexpectedly wiggy vignette early on when various paintings and photographs spring to life, and Stiller and Adams slip inside the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photo of the sailor and the nurse on V-J Day. Clever idea and, for a Levy film, elegant execution. I wish other jokes didn't depend so much on anachronism (Azaria's sibilant bully using words like "bummer," for example).
Nothing elegant about Adams here, but she's terrific--a sparkling screen presence. Her Earhart hoists this big-budget sequel above the routine. In the battle for the Smithsonian she's the winner, and that's no bunk.