As far as hooky family movie conceits go, the “Night at the Museum” franchise is centered around a pretty adorable one (one that, it should be noted, is based on a 32-page children’s book of the same name by Milan Trenc): thanks to an enchanted tablet, every night after dark, the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History come to life. A night watchman, played by Ben Stiller, finds out the secret and has to keep all of the museum’s inhabitants inside the museum. For a single movie, even under the artless direction of Shawn Levy, the idea played well, especially with a supporting cast stocked with comedic heavyweights like Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais and Dick Van Dyke. With the original film, there was enough genuine whimsy to sustain, but now, with the third film, “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” even the franchise’s most basic pleasures have become creaky and cobwebbed.
After an overlong prologue set in Egypt in 1938, the film engages in a gleefully chaotic sequence where the exhibits go haywire during a big benefit at the planetarium. Not only is the idea that these reanimated characters are commonplace an interesting idea, but the fact that they could turn from their personas as Stiller’s cuddly buddies to something more sinister is intriguing. It turns out their bad behavior is because a corrosive agent is warping the tablet, and, should this moss-like growth (it turns from green to blue for no reason at all) cover the tablet, then the museum inhabitants will never spring to life again.
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This leads the gang, for reasons more having to do with tax incentives than plot mechanics, to the British Museum, where young mummy Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) can be reunited with his father Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley), and get to the bottom of what is going on with this magical tablet. That’s literally the entire plot, one that is so threadbare that the main thrust of the movie is interrupted for what seems like 45 minutes when the diminutive statue characters (played by Wilson and Coogan) get lost down a heating duct and the rest of the characters try to locate them. Good grief.
The biggest problem with “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” is that the initial concept, while somewhat wondrous the first time around, has, like the tablet, lost its magic. There’s no awe anymore. And the filmmakers (once again led by Levy) seem wholly uninterested in messing with the formula that has proven so successful in the past; in place of innovation there are a bunch of stale gags and halfhearted attempts at introducing new characters. The entire enterprise comes across as bloated, lazy and a supreme waste of a small legion of comedy greats.
Of the new characters, Dan Stevens makes quite an impression as a delusional Lancelot who thinks that the magical tablet could be his Holy Grail. This character is playing on some of the same notes from the first film (that the wax facsimiles think that they’re the real historical/mythological characters), but Stevens somehow makes the concept seem fresh. He’s wide-eyed and wily and the way the characters react to him is a real joy (Coogan’s Roman soldier is particularly smitten). There’s also a sequence, the best in the movie, where he interrupts a staging of “Camelot” in London because he thinks his Guinevere will be there, where Stevens showcases his comedic chops alongside that flinty danger that made him so much fun to watch in the under-seen thriller “The Guest” earlier this year. (This sequence also delivers a cameo that is too good to give away here.) Kingsley also seems to be having a great time, even though he’s given precious little to do (there is a hilarious interaction when he learns that Stiller is Jewish) and Rebel Wilson, as the British equivalent of Stiller, steals the handful of scenes she’s in. (Considering the franchise’s near-complete marginalization of female characters, she’s lucky she had any lines at all.) But even these new characters don’t do much to spice up a rote and utterly predictable script and slack direction.
And you can tell that Stiller is utterly bored. In a long New Yorker piece that was published the year before “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was released, Stiller admitted that in order to get that movie made he had to sign on to a third “Night at the Museum,” and in every scene you can feel his lack of personal investment. This is one of the most flagrant examples of “going through the motions” in recent memory. Stiller might as well be a hologram. It used to be that comedic sparks were struck when Stiller, nebbish and neurotic and uptight, would try to maintain the insanity of these characters, but here he’s too loose; even his jitters seem phoned in. (It doesn’t help that Levy cuts every scene too short, forgetting, somehow that the biggest laughs came from Stiller aimlessly riffing with these historical characters.) Stiller even gets a second role here, as a caveman, and while slightly amusing, these sequences never amount to much; he’s just as bored in elaborate make-up.
By the end of “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” Levy has tried to convince himself (and the audience) that they’re saying farewell to an important and imaginative franchise, with forced sentimentality and noxious schmaltz. Some of your “beloved” characters die… twice, a weird spin-off sequel is possibly introduced (one that would center around Wilson’s character) and, once again, all the characters spring to life in the museum and start dancing around. “Night at the Museum” was always the best when it was closest to complete anarchy, tapping into the zippy, good-natured malevolence of filmmakers like Joe Dante, but here that energy is gone, replaced by a kind of sleepy noncommittal attitude. The magic has dried up; the museum is closed forever. [D]