As a film critic, you soon come to dread “family comedies”.
It is not just the lazy writing, the condescendingly over-the-top performances or the irritating Hollywood convention that fathers must be shown as needing enlightenment by precociously wise offspring. All too often, these days the compulsory slapstick crosses the border into outright sadism, like the hot-iron-on-face scene in Home Alone 2.
Yes, traditional children’s fairy stories tend to be filled with threats of murder and cannibalism, but it is somehow different when the nastiness is up there on screen and the only educational purpose of a movie seems to be to train kids in imaginative cruelty.
So it is a relief when a family comedy is not in any way excruciating. It is a bonus if it is sufficiently charming and inventive to hold an adult’s attention, if it eschews saccharine sentimentality, if it is relatively free of the abject political correctness of the Jungle Book remake, if it does not rely entirely on computer-generated imagery for storytelling power, and, finally, if it has some genuine educational value without being heavily didactic. If it is any of these things then you can forgive the failed jokes, mugging and overall silliness.
The first Night at the Museum — which starred Ben Stiller and New York’s wonderful American Museum of Natural History — was all of these things. The critics in general were not kind to it, but it was wildly successful at the box office. Seen again, it is a remarkably sweet-natured and charming film, and its premise, that at night the museum’s waxwork figures and dioramas magically come to life, gave the writers the chance to people a film with historical characters like Theodore Roosevelt and Atilla the Hun.
Among many qualities that made it tolerable for grown-ups was the fact that there was little in the history it taught that was wrongheaded. And instead of prompting legions of kids to buy cross-promoted toys, it apparently inspired them to go to the museum, which enjoyed a huge increase in its annual number of visitors.
Most of the action in the inevitable sequel takes place at the even more extraordinary Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, which is hoping for a similar boost.
In the new film, Ben Stiller’s Larry is no longer a ne-er-do-well fantasist desperate to win the approval of his son and reduced by fecklessness to working as a museum night guard. Now he is a wealthy inventor and infomercial salesman. He is so successful that he has all but stopped visiting his old friends at the Museum of Natural History.
When he does drop by one day, he is shocked to find out from Ricky Gervais’s brilliantly gloomy and inarticulate museum director that almost the entire collection is to be replaced by holographic projections. The old dioramas and wax figures are to be packed up and dispatched into deep storage beneath the Smithsonian Institution.
Larry has said goodbye to Atilla and the rest of his old buddies when he finds out that the magic Egyptian tablet that animated the figures has also been transferred to Washington and that it has brought to life some scary beings that now threaten his old friends. He races to DC and disguises himself as a guard to rescue them.
This gives the filmmakers an opportunity to introduce several entertaining new characters and to play with some of the exhibits at the Smithsonian complex, the largest museum in the world. They make good use of the aircraft and rockets at the aerospace museum, and bring some famous paintings and sculptures to life with some extraordinary CG effects (although some of these have little comic logic — they seem there only to show off).
One of the pleasures of the original film was its cameos by top comics. Most have come back for the sequel, and they are joined by the likes of Superbad’s Jonah Hill who plays an obnoxious security guard. Owen Wilson — who always brings out the best in Stiller — is once again the miniature cowboy figurine Jedediah, and Steve Coogan is again his enemy-turned-buddy, the inch-high Roman soldier Octavius. Robin Williams is Teddy Roosevelt again, and once again director Shawn Levy somehow keeps his mawkishness in check.
The two big additions to the regular cast are the Simpsons regular Hank Azaria as the villain Kahmunra, whom he gives a lisping English accent, and Amy Adams as 1930s flyer Amelia Earhart. Adams makes Earhart such a tomboy that it undermines what is supposed to be romantic chemistry between her and Stiller’s Larry. On the other hand it is not her fault that the film ups the political correctness ante by giving her an encounter with the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military flyers.
Unlike the first film, the sequel does not include a sequence in which Larry has to research historical characters who have come to life: young audiences will leave the cinema knowing no more about Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest) or Napoleon Boneparte than that they are bad guys.
Nevertheless, it is all light-hearted frantic fun, and the film’s 107 minutes are stuffed with jokes, some of which fall flat, but none of which cross any lines into cruelty or grossness.
If NATM2 encourages more people to visit the Smithsonian — and it should — writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, and director Levy will actually have done some genuine social good.