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Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Yet Another Unnecessary Sequel

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Night at the Museum, a lackluster, family-oriented fantasy adventure, became a surprise hit, making $250 million in North America alone and $574 million worldwide. A sequel was, of course, inevitable and a sequel is what family audiences will get this weekend with the awkwardly titled Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Not all sequels, however, are made equal.

Despite reuniting director Shawn Levy, co-writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, with actors Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, and Robin Williams, the sequel to Night at the Museum is bland, uninspired, and as inoffensive as effects-heavy, family-oriented films weighed down with $100 million plus dollar budgets frequently are.

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian picks up in (almost) real time, with Larry Daley (Ben Stiller), the night guard who saved Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History from slightly evil, former night guards. Daley, a wannabe inventor and single father, regained the self-confidence necessary to follow his entrepreneurial dreams and become a better father in the process. In Daley’s case, he parlayed useful, if not particularly innovative, inventions into a multi-million dollar business, complete with late-night infomercial co-hosted by George Foreman, Sr. Just as Daley’s about to strike a potentially lucrative deal with Wal-Mart, the museum's director, Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), informs Daley that the museum’s board has decided to ship most of the exhibits to the Federal Archives of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. for permanent storage.

Daley receives a distressed phone call from Jedediah Smith (Owen Wilson), the diorama cowboy who, along with other museum exhibits, comes to life every night thanks to a magical Egyptian tablet. A newly reawakened Egyptian pharaoh, Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), hampered by a speech impediment, has imprisoned the museum exhibits. Not content to reign over the Smithsonian and the Federal Archives, Kahmunrah decides to use the tablet to open a doorway to the underworld, where an army of undead birdmen will help him conquer the world.

Daley flies down to D.C., impersonates a night guard, sidesteps an actual security guard (Jonah Hill), and before long Daley’s crossed paths with Kahmunrah and Kahmunrah’s allies, Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat), and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal). Larry’s allies include the easily distractible Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), the perpetually vacillating General George Armstrong Custer (Bill Hader), the particularly unhelpful Thinker (voiced by Hank Azaria), and even the Lincoln Monument (Azaria again).

Sadly, it’s clear from the first frame to the last that everyone involved returned for the sequel to collect paychecks and really nothing else. Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, the writers-producers behind "Reno: 911!" and The State, crib lines of dialogue, situations, and even visual gags from Night at the Museum, presumably to reawaken moviegoers’ sense of good will, but where the first film at least had the benefit of being “new” and “fresh” (i.e., not a prequel or a sequel or an adaptation from another medium), the sequel doesn’t have that benefit. Instead, Levy, Garant, and Lennon rely on stock situations, stock jokes, and stock plot turns. And when that doesn’t work, they fall back on expensive visual effects, convoluted set pieces, Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score, and the talented cast to carry quickly exhausted, one-note jokes. About the cleverest they get is in an all-too-brief sequence set inside Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous black-and-white, WWII photograph “The Kiss.”

Of course, Levy, Garant, and Lennon are hoping family audiences will carry them over the box office finishing line. They might just work, but whatever success Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian has, it won’t last past Memorial Day Weekend. Terminator Salvation, the only other major film opening this weekend, will obviously attract a different, non-family audience. All that changes next Friday: Disney/Pixar’s much-anticipated tenth feature-length film, Up, will open. In other words, wait a week and get a Pixar-sized treat.