In many ways, the “Night At The Museum” movies represent a near-perfect distillation of what Hollywood wants from its franchises. That is not a compliment.
The three films in the series are interchangeable because none of the films seem to advance the characters or the premise beyond “Magical tablets bring things alive in a museum at night,” and for the audience that keeps turning out to see these films, that seems like all they want or need from them. This one opens in Egypt, decades ago, as the magical tablet is discovered for the first time and a dire warning of a curse is ignored completely. We then flash forward to find that Larry (Ben Stiller) is still a security guard, but he is also somehow in charge of all the “special effects” for a major fundraiser that is being held. I'm not sure many major metropolitan museums put their security guards in charge of giant events, creatively speaking, but that's the least of the movie's problems.
The real problem for me is that every one of the films feels exactly the same, and this is where I think I'm at odds with what the studios want from these films. I'm of the firm opinion that sequels do not have to be a creative dead end, and the goal should be to take the characters and the situation and then expand them and add to them and show us something new. If there is more story to tell, then great… tell that story. But that requires people to treat these as more than just new excuses to tap an existing audience. It requires someone with real vision to actually have characters grow and learn and change, and it takes clear artistic goals to be able to push a series forward each time out.
All three of these films have been built around (A) the magic tablet waking up everything in the museum and (B) characters running around trying to beat some ticking clock. The small details change, but the broad strokes are identical, and just because there are some token gestures towards this being the end of Larry's story, the vast majority of the running time feels like a checklist of things that audiences expect from these films now. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan playing tiny people with big mouths? Sure. Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt? Yep. The Attila The Hun guy speaking in gibberish? Plenty of it. Big dinosaur skeletons? Even more than before! And on, and on, and on, and all of it feels like we're just watching the same film we've already seen.
There are some laughs here. Dan Stevens shows up as Sir Lancelot, and Stevens seems really game for playing a hilarious pompous ass. There are some moments where La (also played by Ben Stiller) and Larry end up in a sort of Cro-Magnon “Who's On First” routine that works. There are also some creative uses of the museum setting , including a fistfight inside an M.C. Escher print, and in general, the entire film is painless. But the problem is that it's so familiar that “painless” seems like the least they could do.
Where I feel like these films are at their worst is when they try to wedge in the sincerity. There's a running thread here about Larry's son Nick (played by Skyler Gisondo, taking over for Jake Cherry, who played the role in the first two films) and how he's at that age where he's starting to push for more independence, and they tie it together with the story of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) and his own relationship with his father Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley), and, sure, it's better when an escapist film has real subtext, but it's mechanical here, and every single time they try to service the father/son stuff, it feels like they're stopping the movie cold to do it. The same is true of every one of Rebel Wilson's scenes. She's been given nothing to do here, and as we see so often in comedies, it's obvious that they hired her and assumed their work was finished. Instead of giving her a character to play, they just set up scenes where she improvs against Stiller, who is also trying to improv, and it just feels like they're wasting time.
It's tough seeing Mickey Rooney in his final role here because he looks so infirm, but I'll give the film a bit of grudging respect for the way they let Robin Williams shine in his last few moments onscreen. There's even a feeling of closure because that last scene between Larry and Teddy is all about saying goodbye to someone. As a result, the credit at the end dedicating the film to the memory of Williams and Rooney actually caught me off-guard. Even in a film like this, Williams was able to show why he was so beloved, with his warmth and his sense of humor shining through clearly.
Shawn Levy has gotten to the point where he can shoot these movies in his sleep, and the film is entirely professional. I'm going to guess that kids are going to enjoy the film the same way they've enjoyed the earlier films, and my own boys laughed a lot as we watched it. It's better than “Annie,” and I'm guessing parents are going to be relieved by how quickly this one blows by. But even a week after seeing it, the film's already starting to fade from memory, never a good sign.
“Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb” is now playing.