"People love what's next," says Ricky Gervais' fussy museum manager, explaining why many of the beloved old-fashioned exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History are being shipped off to storage at the Smithsonian Institute, to be replaced by holograms. Even Ben Stiller's Larry Daley, the former night guard at the museum, seems to have moved on. He's now the infomercial king, hawking such wares as the Glow in the Dark Torch in excruciatingly stilted exchanges with George Foreman.
But, alack, the willful monkey takes the tablet of Ahkmenrah with him to Washington, thus potentially bringing to life the Smithsonian's entire multistory subterranean warehouse of treasured antiquities and zoological oddities. (If monkeys could communicate, they might have something to say about the lopsided number of screenplays predicated on the antics of miscreant simians.) Even worse, Ahkmenrah has a brother, the crazily dressed, maniacally lisping Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria), who, less loved by his parents, intends to use the tablet to exact his revenge and rule the world. If Larry doesn't do something, it's not just his exhibitionist friends who are stuffed. (See TIME's summer entertainment preview.)
People may love what's next, but the Night at the Museum movies are a big swoony smooch to the old. Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams) is our heroine, full of moxie and quaint phraseology. The Tuskegee airmen face off against Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon and Al Capone. Even big old marble Abe Lincoln gets to take his shot. (Hates pigeons, it turns out.)
But it is Daley with his superior-quality museum-guard skills who must ultimately save the day. It's amazing what you can do in the planet-saving department if you just have a uniform, a pass and the right flashlight, apparently. One of the most eye-opening special effects of an effects-laden movie is how it makes minimum-wage employment appear to be a rewarding and glamorous career.
Nobody is going to learn from the Museum movies. Neither will anyone mistake them for the kind of sophisticated entertainment one normally finds on the Mall, in the non-Capitol parts, anyway. But in bringing history, literally, to life, and having as much fun with it as it is computer-graphically possible to have, director Shawn Levy and Reno 911 writers Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon at least make it worth noticing. And perhaps preserving. Progress is good, but as the ancient Pharaohs knew, a good headdress never goes out of style.