Night at the Museum is the most financially successful of 20th Century Fox’s three family-centric trilogies of the past decade, with bigger special effects than the Wimpy Kid series and, one would hope, more adult appeal than the hallowed Chipmunks trilogy. Though they aren’t particularly adult or even especially funny, the Night at the Museum movies do attempt to pacify cranky parents with a truly impressive collection of performers collecting what I can only hope are truly impressive paychecks for the task of standing around and cracking the most wan, least engaged jokes this side of a Grown-Ups movie.
Besides face of the franchise Ben Stiller, who plays an underdog guard at the Natural History Museum in Manhattan who becomes caretaker to a variety of creatures and historical figures brought to life by a magical tablet, the three films have collectively employed Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Paul Rudd, Ricky Gervais, Robin Williams, Amy Adams, Charlie Murphy, Hank Azaria, Christopher Guest, Bill Hader, Rebel Wilson, Dick Van Dyke, and Mickey Rooney. It’s not all-encompassing (the absences of John Candy and George Carlin are explained by death, but how did Jack Black, Melissa McCarthy, and Kristen Wiig avoid conscription?), but it’s more than enough to qualify the series as itself something of a comedian’s museum, with exhibits stretching all the way back to the Depression (the one from the thirties when Mickey Rooney was a star, not the overwhelming feelings of sadness you may get while watching a Night at the Museum movie). Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb became even more museum-like after it finished production; since then, it’s become the final wide-release film of both Williams and Rooney. This lends Tomb an entirely unearned poignancy; the movie is mostly unfunny and then rankly sentimental, but there’s no getting around that it contains a scene where Stiller wishes a fond, tearful goodbye to Robin Williams.
Even discounting that accidentally bittersweet moment, Tomb does manage, for some brief moments, to exceed the low bar set by its predecessors. An early sequence where the living creatures disguise themselves as a faked “night program” for a fundraiser ends in a refreshing anarchy when everything goes haywire (though even the simple cartoon mayhem is preceded with winking self-regard when an announcer reminds viewers that the museum is known for its “renowned special effects”). The characters are on the fritz because the enchanted tablet that brings them to life is losing its magic; Stiller’s guard must travel to the British Museum to bring their Egyptian exhibit to life and figure out how to restore the tablet’s power. Opportunities to dig at the British Museum’s historical tendency to acquire other countries’ artifacts are politely ignored, but Ben Kingsley does hint at the kind of broad satire that could have been when he learns that Stiller is Jewish: he’s enthusiastic about the Jewish people, having “owned 40,000 of them.” There’s also a sequence inside an MC Escher painting that’s about ten percent as funny as a more virtuoso sequence from Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action, but then Shawn Levy is not Joe Dante and he must, must be aware of this by now.
He also must make talent extremely comfortable: many of the actors who might have conceivably appeared in a Museum entry turned up in his Date Night (Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Kristen Wiig, J.B. Smoove, James Franco, Mila Kunis) or This Is Where I Leave You (Fey, Jason Bateman, Kathryn Hahn, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Dax Shepard, Ben Schwartz). Those movies were at least kinda-sorta aimed at adults; here Levy employs a similarly talented cast for a movie that’s a few perilous steps above a kid’s birthday party. These talented actors are there, somewhat perversely, to make a live-action cartoon, without either the stigma or creativity that sometimes accompanies animation. In doing so, Night at the Museum happily rips off its animated brethren. The scenes where various museum objects must learn self-awareness recall the Toy Story movies, while the trilogy’s dopey dance-party ending brings to mind the worst instincts of DreamWorks.
The best The Secret of the Tomb might be able to do is introduce some kids to Williams, Rebel Wilson, Dick Van Dyke, or even Stiller and Wilson, who have a lot of great movies on their filmographies alongside the junk. Adults or even teenagers who know this stuff already, though, won’t have many other comedy options this holiday season; Sony just deep-sixed Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s The Interview from opening at all. Hopefully that instance of corporate cowardice won’t send Rogen, James Franco, and other Apatow folks who have so far mostly resisted the lure of bad family movies scurrying back to Shawn Levy, huddling together for warmth.