Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Opens Fri., Dec. 19 at Majestic Bay and other theaters. Rated PG. 97 minutes.
All franchises have to end (James Bond perhaps excepted), most announce that intent, and the lucky ones make it to three. Here the end is predicted during a prologue in 1938 Egypt, where a young lad watches his archaeologist father grab a golden tablet said to bear a curse. (Later the thing will be revealed to work its magic, dwindling with disastrous results, by recharging itself with moonlight; thus the plot will seem familiar to anyone who’s sought to charge their iPad in the airport before a long flight.) After two Night movies, the core cast is well established: Ben Stiller’s security guard Larry overseeing a magically animated menagerie of historical characters (played by Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, etc.) and beasts (most notably an incontinent monkey). The plots of the Night trilogy aren’t important or even interdependent. What’s this one about? my 10-year-old companion asked. Not having seen the first two, I hedged: Oh, a bunch of museum exhibits magically come to life, and there are lots of chases. Good, he said, I like chases.
So do I, and though the balance of family-friendly comedy to life lessons is quite palatable, Secret of the Tomb is actually lighter on the chases and anarchic wreckage than expected. By now, the museum’s nighttime secret has become a showbiz attraction and humble Larry a backstage impresario trying vainly to get his ostriches, T. rex skeletons, and Neanderthals to perform on cue for their black-tied museum donors and guests. (Stiller also doubles as a dumb, sweet Neanderthal named Laaa, who has a mighty appetite for Styrofoam packing kernels.) But here comes the curse/plot: The Egyptian tablet has a corrosion problem that can be solved only by transporting the gang to the British Museum, where the mummy prince (a dryly funny Rami Malek) has mummy parents who know how to fix the enchanted device.
Apart from the chases, peeing monkey, and medieval ninja antics of Sir Lancelot (Downton Abbey’s quite amusing Dan Stevens), all pleasing to kids, parents will appreciate the interplay among the not-quite-condescending cast. Ben Kingsley, as a once-despotic pharaoh, has a nice bit about Larry’s tribe (“I love the Jews!”), while Coogan’s sour little centurion keeps slipping daft utterances and cowardly gibes. The latter, along with Wilson’s likewise tiny cowpoke, have buddy-movie chemistry. Yet other than Stiller, no one—including Williams in his rather stiff final role—has enough time to establish character. Larry’s teenage son is a split-demographic bore, and we don’t care about Larry’s parenting duties either.
What comes through most in this enjoyable hodgepodge adventure is Stiller’s all-too-recognizable brand of impatience and fatigue: a bit of the indie-world midlife panic from Greenberg, the realization that I’m getting too old for this shit. Larry can’t say it (nor can Stiller, obviously), though it’s significant that he skips the movie’s joyous final dance-party coda. But, hey, Laaa is thrilled to go in his place.