In 2006, it was the coolest idea ever squandered by Hollywood: The American Museum of Natural History comes alive ... at night! But audiences can only experience it via an emotionally phony father-son sitcom "? one that misses the real magic of the museum.
As is always the case with sequels, the filmmakers clearly felt the need to top themselves with their second outing, "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian," and returning director Shawn Levy ("The Pink Panther") and screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon ("Balls of Fury") have done just that, turning in a morass of "Three Stooges"-level slapstick and juvenile-styled playground taunting. There's nothing wrong with movies aimed at children "? and only grade-schoolers will find this amusing on any sustained level "? but must it seem as if it were actually written by 8-year-olds?
The height of "Smithsonian"'s wit is an excruciatingly drawn out bit in which Ben Stiller's museum guard and Hank Azaria's come-to-life ancient Egyptian pharaoh characters bicker like kids in the backseat of a car. "Mom, he's on my side of the museum!" either of them could screech without sounding in the least out of place. Although the glee with which Garant and Lennon's script overextends a "joke" about another guard's name "? his name tag reads "Brendan," but he insists it's a common name pronounced "Brundon" "? suggests the writers are particularly proud of that, too.
With all the collections of the Smithsonian to play with, one wouldn't think the filmmakers would have to strain themselves this hard to come up with something clever, but that's not all they struggle with. Plausibility is another.
Beyond the fantasy of the museums coming to life, the narrative contortions filmmakers painfully attempt to get Stiller's Larry Daley back into the story and back to some of the more beloved exhibits "? such as Owen Wilson's and Steve Coogan's miniature warriors "? from New York to D.C. so they can join the new action.
Are there individual moments of amusement for those of us older than 8? A few, just as there were in the first film, including clever send-ups of the museum's best, most notable exhibits. These occasional scenes feature ingenious performances by Azaria ("Run Fatboy Run") and Amy Adams ("Doubt") as a spunky Amelia Earhart, or Wilson ("Marley & Me") and Coogan ("Hamlet 2") having fun with their fantastical characters.
But these moments are accidental and entirely beside the point. A smart version of this movie would capitalize on such scenes instead of appearing not to notice them at all. Instead, it's all monkeys slapping Stiller ("Tropic Thunder"), again, a tedious repetition of a "joke" that wasn't funny the first time around.
There may be magic in a world where museums can come to life, but there's no magic in this movie.