Success breeds sequels, of course, so it’s no surprise that the big bucks raked in by Ben Stiller’s mediocre 2006 special-effects comedy “Night at the Museum” should have spawned this follow-up. It’s bigger, splashier and more frantic than its predecessor, but even more elephantine, silly and mirthless. Also heartless. The first picture had at least a suggestion of tenderness in its story thread of a man trying to rebuild a relationship with his young son, but that’s been pretty much jettisoned this time around. “Night at the Museum 2” is the kind of empty extravaganza that gives family films a bad name.
Stiller’s Larry Daley is no longer the hapless failure of the first movie, but a well-heeled inventor and businessman who revisits his old stomping grounds at New York’s Museum of Natural History—and the familiar displays that came to life at night because of some ancient Egyptian magic (including Robin Williams’ Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wilson’s tiny cowboy Jedidiah and Steve Coogan’s miniature Roman general Octavius)—only to find that Director McPhee (Ricky Gervais) is shipping most of them to storage at the Smithsonian. His attempt to foil the scheme fails, but he’s compelled to intervene when he learns from Jedidiah—whose ability to make a phone call is never explained—that the magic tablet was mistakenly brought to Washington and revived not only them, but the villainous Pharoah Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), who plans to use the device to raise an army of the dead and conquer the world. Our hero is soon off to defuse the situation and save his friends.
In the ensuing melee, Daley’s aided not only by his old buddies but by a bevy of newcomers, including Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), the statue of Abe Lincoln from the memorial on the mall (Azaria again) and some Albert Einstein bubble-head dolls (Eugene Levy). Meanwhile the Egyptian enlists Napoleon (Alain Chabat), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal) and Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) as his affiliates. General Custer (Bill Hader) shows up too, but proves such a doofus that he merely blusters ineffectually.
And that’s only the beginning. It would be a tedious and fruitless business to catalogue all the CGI folks, critters and animated objects that show up as the two sides clash—Darth Vader and Oscar the Grouch audition for the villainous team, and even the Jonas Brothers show up as a trio of warbling cherubs. Of course, all the noise and nonsense might be worth it if there were some charm or wit to go along with it, but all we get are interminable hubbub and very lame jokes, which the returning Shawn Levy stages with the same lack of style and finesse that he brought to the previous installment. Under his laissez-faire hand, nobody in the cast distinguishes himself, least of all Stiller, who’s even more grating than usual. The others seem to be under the impression that simply wearing funny outfits is sufficient to induce endless laughs, though when somebody like Azaria tries a funny voice as well, it makes things worse. (That’s especially true of the Bronx accent he gives to Rodin’s statue The Thinker.)
Mention of the Rodin does, however, bring up one of the few interesting elements of the movie—the animation of famous paintings, photos and statues as backdrops for some of the chase scenes. It’s an idea that Albinus, the protagonist of one of Nabokov’s early novels, “Laughter in the Dark,” suggested to his friends, but they shot it down as impractical. Here it’s one of the only sights that have show real imagination. Of course the allusions will escape the kiddies, but at least literate grownups will find them a brief respite from the wincing they’ll usually be engaged in.
Otherwise, “Night at the Museum” is a big, bloated bore, so overstuffed with effects and racket that it’s simply exhausting. Given the tastes of today’s audiences, it will probably be a huge hit.