As a series, the Night at the Museum films have been mostly premise without much payoff for adults. However, I think the first one was among the best zany, live action kids films released by Hollywood in the past decade (that’s not saying much). The second one had lost its purpose and the final installment has suffered from that derailment. If we ignore the special effects, at its heart, Night at the Museum had been about a father an son overcoming divorce and a loss of respect. A bumbling father made good, so to speak. The parenting issues were dropped from the second installment, and that film simply became a special effects comedy at the Smithsonian instead of the American Museum of Natural History. The father and son were simply best friends. Secret of the Tomb attempts to bring the family drama back into the picture, but awkwardly in a way that makes the picture pure juvenile fantasy.
The major cast members have returned for one last go. Ben Stiller returns as Larry, watchman and keeper of the secrets of the museum at night. Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, and the late Robin Williams return as well. Rami Malek and Ricky Gervais round out the core returning cast. Dick Van Dyke and the late Micky Rooney also reprise roles as retired guards. I guess the romance between Amy Adams and Ben Stiller hinted at near at the ending of the second film never actually materialized. After a disastrous opening ceremony for a newly renovated planetarium at the venerable New York institution (Again? They just built a new one ten years ago), it is revealed that the magic tablet that brings the museum to life at night is losing its effectiveness. So it’s off to the the British Museum to revive the mummies of Prince Ahkmenrah’s parents who know the secret of its power.
To London we somehow go for another round of museums come to life. The British Museum obviously wasn’t available to play itself (due to scheduling concerns?), so the Natural History Museum fills in. That’s the only reason I can think of as to why there are dinosaurs at the British Museum and Sir Lancelot is in what appears to be the Natural History Museum’s great hall. It’s all fun and zany, until the end when everyone determines that the tablet as well as Ahkmenrah’s mummy is best kept in London to reunite a family. Everyone else returns to New York where we bid goodbye to the exhibits one by one for the last time. I’m sure the museum curators won’t mind that their artifacts have switched places. It’s probably petty to complain about verisimilitude in a movie about museum exhibits come to life starring some of the greatest comedic talent the movies currently has on offer.
The scene-stealer in the film is Rebel Wilson, who plays the security guard at the British Museum. Yes, she is reprising her “Fat Amy” persona from Pitch Perfect, although toned down for the kids. But for a character actor, Rebel is still fresh for me. Like Pitch Perfect, she appears to have been given a treatment for a scene then told to make it funny. Her scenes appear largely improvised, as does much of the dialogue between Wilson and Coogan. We’ll see what we think of her in a few years. Hopefully we’ll see if she can do something different.
So what is not to like? Mainly I think the film fails to integrate the family story into the wider story that unfolds at the museum. The overall theme is letting go and the trials of parents keeping secrets from children to protect them. Larry learns the former from the museum pieces themselves, who sense that it is time to go to sleep for the last time. The latter he learns from Pharoh Merenkahre (Ben Kinsley), who had not told his son all of the secrets of the magic tablet in order to protect him. Unfortunately, this message gets applied Larry’s family situation. Larry’s son, Nick (Skyler Gisondo in his first turn in the role) wants to forgo college to move to Ibiza to become a DJ. Larry, having struggled through the first and second films because he hadn’t finished college or much of anything else at life decides in the end to support this plan, to let his son make his own mistakes. As Nick notes, Larry hadn’t gone to college, but everything worked out for him. Of course Nick likes the idea, but what kind of movie series set in institutions of knowledge ends with a message of forgoing college to party in Ibiza? That’s an ending for a movie with a theme of “follow your dreams”, but for that to be effective, we need to have some sense that the person following their dreams actually has some talent. Of course kids would like that ending. Wouldn’t we all like to be “DJs” and not have to study music to get there or have parents who don’t push us to do things we don’t want to do?
Maybe there is a shortage of DJ’s in Ibiza and I’m just being a grouch. But perhaps child rearing advice taken from the example of a 4,000 year old all powerful head of an empire isn’t applicable in these circumstances. Perhaps one isn’t being overprotective by arguing forcefully that one’s son should attend college if he isn’t destined to be worshiped as god incarnate on earth.
** of Five