It wasn't seeing history come alive that brought in nearly $600 million worldwide when the first Night at the Museum hit theaters. It was the cathartic thrill of watching the wanton trashing of a secular society's holiest of holies: the culture palace.
Trust me: Those of us who as kids were schlepped around ancient exhibits having our wrists slapped for talking or touching couldn't help but get a kick out of the mayhem that erupted in New York's Museum of Natural History, one of the world's most hallowed monuments to the past.
Dinosaur bones rolled over and played fetch; a woolly mammoth trampled the furniture; cavemen with terrible teeth yukked it up while director Shawn Levy's famous comedian friends — Robin Williams, Steve Coogan and others, dressed up as past presidents and Roman centurions — got off a cascade of one-liners.
The gang's all back for Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, but it's a golden rule of sequels that each ante must be exponentially upped. So there's a boatload more frat-style bedlam and many more of those defrosted historical personages — Al Capone, Ivan the Terrible, that sort of thing — in part deux of what will surely turn out to be a prime franchise for 20th Century Fox.
More noodling than filmmaking, the sequel dispenses with the already skeletal human story (divorced dad trying to show suffering son that he can hold down a stable job) that had been tacked on so carelessly in the first movie.
Gone, too, is all pretense of a coherent plot, unless you count an unseemly scramble for control over a certain golden tablet — though there is at least a political drive-by. The outcome of the chase, you see, will either plunge the world into totalitarian darkness under foreign rule, or make it safe for back-to-basics American democracy.
When last we saw our hero, Larry (played again by Ben Stiller as a delivery system for wide-eyed reaction shots), he was happily adjusting to life as the night guard at the MNH, where he could arbitrate the behavior of wholesomely old-hat dioramas and waxworks sprung to life.
In the interim, alas, Honest Larry has abandoned his stuffed charges for the fleshpots of corporate America, where he toils as a rich but existentially troubled inventor of infomercial products. (Populism alert!)
Learning that his former charges will be replaced by fancier holograms and dispatched in styrofoam to rot in the basement of the Smithsonian Institution — three of whose 19 sprawling branches conveniently widen the field for scads more battle sequences and terrible jokes — Larry ditches the filth of capitalism and rushes to Washington to save the day.
More, sadly, is not always better. Hank Azaria is uncharacteristically awful as a lithping pharaoh who schemes to take over the world, while Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader breathes way too hard as a ruinously ineffectual General Custer. Meanwhile a certain uncredited nerd idol treads water in a superfluous cameo designed to keep the tween demographic happy.
Cate Blanchett would have been the obvious first choice to play feisty aviator Amelia Earhart, but as it happens, Amy Adams manages the trick niftily, channeling Katharine Hepburn in skintight jodhpurs to romance Larry and make the case for lightening up.
Which is basically what director Levy — a latter-day Robert Zemeckis, fond of using cutting-edge FX to argue a case for the handmade, the amateur and the folksy — is all about. To enjoy this latest museum Night, you have to get into the groove of his method, which is to toss whatever sequence or character takes his fancy into his CGI sandbox, and play there happily, affectionately twitting the higher arts all the while.
If you're not amused by the sight of Abe Lincoln lumbering off his stone plinth to flirt with Adams and rave on about national consensus, or by a Greek chorus of chubby cupids who warble made-to-measure musical numbers, or by a lusty version of Rodin's famous statue who sits and mutters, "I'm thinking, I'm thinking," you won't like this Battle one bit.
Me, I loved every silly, slapped-together minute of it.