Usually, when characters in a movie are one-dimensional, that’s not a good thing. But in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, the waxworks figures who come to life after sundown aren’t crassly sketchy or dramatically lacking. They’re one-dimensional, all right, but knowingly, delightfully so. Even at their most pop-up brash, they’re true to the way that kids see history. They’re like characters out of a cool yet innocent mischief-at-midnight children’s book — a Where the Wild Things Are of global story-time kitsch. And they give you a lift.
The movie, make no mistake, is clownishly silly, a lark as light as balsa wood. If anything, though, it’s a faster, wittier spin on the formula of its predecessor. Released in 2006, Night at the Museum was a family popcorn extravaganza that touched a chord even its producers may not have anticipated. In the sequel, Ben Stiller, as the former night guard Larry Daley (he’s now a successful entrepreneur…of flashlights!), spends one long night infiltrating the galleries of the Smithsonian Institution, where he ? attempts to rescue the exhibits he first got to know at the American Museum of Natural History. (He’s trying to get his hands on the magical Egyptian tablet that brings them to life.)
The T.rex, the capuchin monkeys, Attila the Hun — all have been shipped to the archives of the Smithsonian. And all are as feisty as ever. But Battle of the Smithsonian tilts away from the zoological. The film is a history-of-the-world burlesque in which such drolly self-centered icons as General Custer (Bill Hader), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), and Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) — a made-up pharoah who lisps with the enthusiasm of Boris Karloff on his own reality show — collide happily with ?a living army of Albert Einstein bobblehead dolls, plus stone-carved angels who sing ”More Than a Woman” and The Thinker come to life as a Brooklyn deadbeat. This is what you call a wholesome kiddie movie on drugs.
It all works because Stiller, with his eager-to-please anxiety and his incredulous double takes, is the perfect addled straight man for a hellzapoppin history show. And it works because Amy Adams, as Amelia Earhart, has the breathless, daffy-sexy vivacity of a ’30s screwball heroine, her eyes lit with fire, her delivery as sharp as cut glass as she rat-a-tats out lines like ”You haven’t been able to take your cheaters off my chassis since we met!” Battle of the Smithsonian has plenty of life. But it’s Adams who gives it zing. B+