Eight years is a long time in the life of a child. While critics are lining up to award Richard Linklater for exploring such an idea, a much larger viewing audience unfamiliar with Boyhood may experience a similar feeling of time passing them by while watching Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Advertising itself as the finale of the soon-to-be billion dollar grossing Night at the Museum trilogy, Secret of the Tomb lays it on thick with pretences of finality and closure. In truth, the film doesn’t bring the journey to a stop, and instead simply hits the blinker on a lucrative franchise vehicle that’s always been operating in cruise control.
Ben Stiller once again straps on nightshift blues and a flashlight as security guard Larry Daley, who spends his evenings corralling the magically sentient exhibits of the Natural History Museum. Over the course of his adventures, we saw Larry learn to take responsibility in 2006’s Night at the Museum, and then learn that it’s also important to have fun in 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. With his moppet son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) now a college-bound young man, and a new Neanderthal display (played by Stiller) convinced that Larry is his father, paternal anxiety infects the proceedings like the loosely-defined magic bringing wax mannequins to life.
From humble origins as a cocktail napkin pitch (“Toy Story + History”), the Night at the Museum saga looks to end on a momentous note with Secret of the Tomb. Opening with a portentous flashback to the discovery of the magic tablet that gives inanimate objects life, the third Night at the Museum film is otherwise perfectly happy to reheat jokes and story beats from the 2006 original. With the tablet’s powers fading, Larry, Nick and audience favorite exhibits head off to the British Natural History Museum to search for a solution.
If this isn’t your first Museum roundup, to borrow some of the oft-repeated cowpoke slang from Jedediah (Owen Wilson), you’ll know what to expect. Every simple task put upon Larry is complicated by the antics of the antiques, or delayed by comedy bits that stretch on longer than your average Mesozoic period. Robin Williams has more liberty to motor mouth scat this time out, but is still mostly fun to watch as Teddy Roosevelt. And the monkey still pees on things.
For a series ostensibly about teaching kids that learning is #Cool, the creative stasis of the Night at the Museum films has made them more useful for teaching young viewers how to identify basic comedy and storytelling tropes that meatier kids movies avoid. Yet, a premise mashing history and pseudo-science together in a big nonsensical adventure still has occasional appeal.
Wilson and Steve Coogan as diorama miniatures are still winning, even if it’s more fun imagining what they said to each other between takes than anything they do onscreen (“What are you spending your paycheque on?” “Probably another Trip movie.”). Dan Stevens, meanwhile, throws a lot into a little as Sir Lancelot, only furthering Toy Story comparisons by stealing Buzz Lightyear’s routine wholesale.
The big missing piece, however, is a performer as zanily charming as Amy Adams was as Emilia Earhart in the second film. And, thanks to Larry’s overarching daddy issues, the almost homosocial definition of family that Secret of the Tomb develops makes its absent feminine influence even more glaring.
Despite the rotating cast of historical characters and changes of setting, director Shawn Levy has always squarely aimed the Museum films at the same age group. Seeing as the average kid who enjoyed the first film will likely be too old for the finale, Secret of the Tomb awkwardly has to balance playing to its new generation of younger viewers, while still putting on airs of gravitas for those in for a third outing.
Nowhere is the conflict more jarring than in the film’s contradictory message about the importance of hands-on, physical interaction with history, when CGI dominates every attention deficit setpiece. When even Crystal the Monkey is playing second banana to a digital counterpart much of the time, it means what little magic the franchise ever had is most certainly tapped out at this point.
Learning to let go is time-tested moral for family films, but Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is really more interested in guiding and goosing audience members through the process of saying farewell to a movie franchise. Much as it’s a creative thrust worthy of cynical eye rolling, it’s also the only available avenue to find an emotional throughline. This is a series built on repetition, not progression; unlike Larry’s son, the Museum films never grew up in the eight years of their existence.