The warm moments rise from the real history sampled in Night at the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian. The kid-friendly thrills come from the special effects — the monsters, mannequins, artifacts and paintings that come to life in this sequel to 2006's Night at the Museum.
But the laughs roll out of Ben Stiller's verbal sparring with Amy Adams, Jonah Hill, Hank Azaria, Bill Hader and Robin Williams. When this excessive and silly farce works — roughly half the time — it's thanks to the comic dynamic created by funny folk who can go riff-to-riff with Stiller.
Hill (Superbad), as a Smithsonian security guard, gets after Larry (Stiller) the former security guard of New York's Museum of Natural History.
When Azaria affects an English-accented lisp as a pharaoh bent on world conquest, Stiller stifles a laugh.
On the other hand, Christopher Guest is given nothing funny to play as Ivan the Terrible.
Larry has left his museum gig and gone into infomercials. But he checks in on his friends (Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, Owen Wilson as a cowboy miniature). He learns they're going into storage, replaced by cool interactive holograms. The "friends," brought to life by a pharaoh's magical tablet, are to be stored in the vast Smithsonian archives, where another pharaoh is revived and hopes to use that tablet "to summon my army of the dead." He enlists Napoleon, Al Capone and Ivan the you-know-what.
Larry must bust into the Smithsonian and save the world, because tonight, history really does "come alive" in the largest museum in the world.
Adams plays a plucky and adorably sexy Amelia Earhart, who resolves to help Larry on his quest. Everything from Rodin's The Thinker to the Lincoln Memorial plays a role. All heck breaks out in the Air and Space Museum, home of the Wright brothers and the Tuskegee Airmen (The Office's Craig Robinson, given nothing funny to do).
These are kids' movies with the odd moment of History with a capital H. General Custer (Hader of Saturday Night Live, amusing) has his moment of doubt, Lincoln and Roosevelt toss a few of their immortal words our way, and Earhart keeps getting lost. Adams is the heart of the movie. That Amelia had moxie.
It's a clunky, stumbling film. But it's funny to see Hill, Hader, Azaria and Adams push Stiller toward something like his old A-game. Managing that in a movie likely to lure children into museums makes this Battle, if not an outright win, at least a draw.