By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
When the roll call of best sequels ever is read, Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian should rank pretty high on the list. This is the movie director Shawn Levy should've made the first time around.
Everything is bigger, livelier and downright better than 2006's Night at the Museum, which was a great idea sunk by limitations of budget and imagination. Both are in order this time, after the first movie's box office bonanza. But what also makes Battle of the Smithsonian more fun is what Levy took out.
Gone is the paternal conflict padding that forced Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) to take a job as a night watchman in New York's Museum of Natural History, where exhibits magically come alive after sundown. Robin Williams' riffing as Teddy Roosevelt is mercifully reduced, and there's no subplot about aging watchmen in survival mode. Anything that grounded or distracted Night at the Museum is gone and never missed.
Instead, the plot promptly zips to Washington, where much of the New York museum's outdated exhibits are being banished to deep storage in Smithsonian vaults. Since this is the world's largest museum, Levy has millions of items and artifacts to enliven, from the Wright brothers' airplane to Albert Einstein bobblehead dolls. The former leads to an exciting and romantic action sequence while the latter offer scene-stealing comedy.
This time, the plot revolves around the mystical golden tablet of Ahkmenrah causing all this commotion. His brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria, sporting a Boris Karloff lisp) wants the tablet to unleash his Army of the Dead and conquer the world with his accomplices: Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Napoleon Bonaparte (Alain Chabat) and Al Capone (Jon Bernthal).
That hardly seems like a fair fight since Larry's comrades are either miniature (Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan reprising their roles), deluded lunatics (Bill Hader as Gen. George Armstrong Custer) or Neanderthals.
Battle of the Smithsonian awakens statues, paintings and the nearby Lincoln Memorial, and an escape into Life magazine's 1945 photo of a sailor kissing a nurse on VJ Day is a brilliant, monochromatic move. Even inanimate objects are mined for laughs; Kahmunrah cooing about the comfort of Archie Bunker's easy chair "throne" is madcap genius.
Don't think that Battle of the Smithsonian is merely computer-generated eye candy. Emotional issues are handled with care: Larry's success as an inventor has taken a personal toll, a distinct lack of "moxie," as the rejuvenated aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams, irresistibly spunky) says in 1920s hipspeak. Larry's tentative romance with Amelia, as opposed to his divorced moping in the original, is a welcomed addition.
Battle of the Smithsonian is a delightful summer diversion, perfect for families and absurdly smart enough for anyone else. Or perhaps you don't think Larry using a "cube of Rubik" as a ploy to outwit Kahmunrah, or a chorus of cherubs voiced by the Jonas Brothers is funny. That's your loss.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.