Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the third and final chapter in the second most beloved series of children’s movies starring Ben Stiller and involving African mammals running wild, is better than 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Let’s allow it to have that. God knows it doesn’t have anything else, and God knows as well that Battle of the Smithsonian represents a pretty eminently surmountable peak of quality. You know what else is better than Battle of the Smithsonian? Slamming you hand in a car door. Let’s not get carried away here.

The new film picks up in real time, some eight years after the first Night at the Museum established that New York’s Museum of Natural History possesses a magical tablet from ancient Egypt that brings inanimate representations of living beings to life, and every night the museum runs amok with dinosaur bones, wax mannequins, stuffed animals, and Easter Island statues having all sorts of wacky scrapes. Larry Daley (Stiller) has been the night security guard all these years, and along with museum director Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), has established an entire programming slate of edutaining activities allowing civilians to interact with these magical creatures, under the official story that they are high-end animatronics or some such thing. But alas! the center cannot hold, and the magical tablet is corroding with some manner of greenish patina, forcing the living exhibits to behave in bizarre and unpredictable ways. The tablet’s owner, sometime mummy Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), can’t explain how to fix it, but he knows who can: his father, who Larry finds (after some pointless business that extends the running time while serving up cameos from Dick Van Dyke, Bill Cobbs, and the late Mickey Rooney, one of the films dedicatees) is now being exhibited in the British Museum. So begins a journey across the Atlantic, to crack the secrets of the Egyptian magic and save the day.

I just came up up with a fun think piece somebody needs to write: right now we have in theaters, one the one hand, a film about ancient Egypt that casts white people in brownface. On the other, a film starring an ethnically Egyptian actor as an ancient pharaoh, that blithely traffics in nonsense about magic tablets and includes lines like “bake like a scarab beetle in the Sinai”. Which is the greater offense against decency and human dignity? And “burn the film industry to the ground and start over” isn’t an answer.

So Larry ends up in London with exactly the blend of celebrity figures you could predict if you saw either of the originals: U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams, the other dedicatee), Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), and miniature diorama cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and diorama centurion Octavius (Steve Coogan), whom this film has decided is gay, but lacks the commitment to actually clarify that fact. Also the beloved incontinent capuchin monkey Dexter. And a new character, the neanderthal Laaa, who is played by Stiller in a thick pile of latex and invites all sorts of comments about how much he looks like Larry, even though he actually doesn’t much at all, because we have here a rare example of the make-up effects artists doing their job too well. Oh, and Larry’s teenage son Nick (Skyler Gisondo), so that the film can introduce a spurious subplot about fathers letting go of their college-aged son when those sons would prefer to take a gap year working as club DJ in Ibiza. If I had to pick a specific reason that Secret of the Tomb shifted from “this isn’t good” to “ this is awful horseshit and I hate it”, that subplot would be way the hell near the top of that list.

In London, the whole crew encounters new characters both human (Rebel Wilson as a security guard with no verbal filter) and otherwise (a clueless Lancelot, played by Dan Stevens; Ahkmenrah’s parents, played by Anjali Jay and a very serious and grounded Sir Ben Kingsley), and there’s a game cameo late in the film late in the film that I wouldn’t dare to spoil. The plot, such as it is, has the benefit of being straightforward, something that was entirely untrue of the chaotic Battle of the Smithsonian (a film in no way acknowledged by this one), with highly functional story beats following upon each other in a clear order, sometimes intercutting between moments of heightened stakes as the characters break into groups to hunt through the museum. It is, in all ways, very much like a movie, which is an impressive achievement for a Shawn Levy project.

But it is also very much like a poor movie, putting all its emotional eggs in the basket of Larry’s difficulties with being the father of a soon-to-be high school graduate, and this is a terrible thing for it to do (it also weirdly parallels Night at the Museum 1, which was obsessively fascinated with the drama of a divorced dad trying to be a good presence in his son’s life). Nominally, the appeal of these movies comes in the form of their high fantasy, as we watch all kinds of delightful museum displays doing silly things; secondarily, they smuggle in facts about natural history and natural history museums. These are both very much downplayed in Secret of the Tomb, which doesn’t do much in the way of educating its audience besides sadly noting that the Camelot legend is not scrupulously historical accurate, and that in the context of forcing the spectacularly non-funny Lancelot through Buzz Lightyear’s arc from the original Toy Story. Meanwhile, the big “oooh” moments are limited to a fight with a giant stone snake statue, and… nope, that’s the only one. There’s a sequence with giant lion statues that lasts no longer than the footage shown in the film’s trailers, that’s pretty good. And at one point, some of the characters fall into M.C. Escher’s Relativity, and they look like animated wood carvings, in the film’s one and only moment where it decides to do something with its visuals.

And so, this grand finale is a tepid, sedate, snoozy affair, giving none of its famous people in the supporting cast much to do at all: Williams’s final big studio film finds him virtually drifting off the screen, as taciturn as ever in what has, thrice now, been the least-interesting role of his career; Coogan and Owen Wilson fare only slightly better. Stiller’s level straight-man routine is interesting only when he’s playing it against himself, and he openly gives up on trying to make the father-son subplot land with anything but the softest of thuds (he’s far more emotionally present when saying goodbye to one of the regular characters near the end - surprisingly, there’s some actual permanence to this finale - than he ever is with his onscreen son, though it’s not like Gisondo provides all that much to work with). There is a grand total of one good joke - a resurrected Pharaoh excitedly talking about the ancient Jews he used to own, and Stiller’s strained responses, a sequence that has wandered in from a very different movie. There are a grand total of no real emotions. And while the film isn’t acutely horrible the way that its most recent predecessor, it’s also slacker, duller, and infinitely less inspired than the already mild competence found in the first film. It never seemed like the audience was clamoring for a third entry in this unnecessarily durable series; the nasty secret is that the filmmakers and actors clearly wanted it even less.

Reviews in this series
Night at the Museum (Levy, 2006)
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (Levy, 2009)
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (Levy, 2014)