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‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’ is a modest, fun excursion

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Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
Written by David Guion and Michael Handelman
Directed by Shawn Levy
USA/UK, 2014

Getting the band back together for one final gig is almost never a good idea.  In the case of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, however, there’s enough ingenuity and fun to justify the encore.  Director Shawn Levy adds a few clever wrinkles and plenty of familiar callbacks as he sends his family franchise out with pomp and poignancy.  The untimely death of Robin Williams also adds resonance to the film’s melancholy message that letting go is a necessary, painful fact of life.

It’s easy for critics to dismiss films like Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb (SOTT).  When you’re three films into a franchise that’s fueled by a wafer-thin premise, you can feel bored and dissatisfied before the movie even begins.  What guards SOTT against some of the usual franchise fatigue is the steadying presence of director Shawn Levy.  Not only has he admirably helmed all three movies, he has a very specific objective in mind for his finale.  There isn’t much clutter here; only a handful of new characters to distract from the core cast of the first two films.    As a standalone film, SOTT might not offer as much as you’d like, but as the final piece of a modest trilogy, it completes its story arc with a genuine sense of fun and purpose.

Things kick off with a Raiders of the Lost Ark vibe, as we travel back in time to discover the origins of The Tablet of Ahkmenrah.  The Tablet, you’ll remember, is what gives the exhibits at the titular museum their ability to cavort and crack-wise at night.  Seems the locals weren’t too keen on having the Tablet unearthed, so they put a nasty little curse on it.  Now, years later, the Tablet is suddenly corroding, causing the exhibits at the museum to behave even wackier than usual.  It’s up to the tireless night watchman, Larry (Ben Stiller), to figure out what’s up with the Tablet and how to keep his friends out of harm’s way.

gang

By now, the story beats are pretty familiar.  We get the ‘peanut gallery’ riffing between Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and Octavius (Steve Coogan), the reassuring presence of Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), a cute little monkey peeing on people, and the occasional plot exposition from Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek), Sacajawea (Mizuo Peck), and Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais).  Larry’s son, Nick (Skyler Gisondo), also plays an increased role in the story, furthering the film’s themes about letting go and moving on to new challenges.  New cast members include a saucy English security guard, Tilly (Rebel Wilson), the brave but morally questionable Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), Ahkmenrah’s (re)animated father, Pharoah Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley), and a goofy caveman named Laa who bears an uncanny resemblance to Larry.  Each character gets a chance to shine, whether it’s in an action set piece or a zippy one-liner.

Levy does a predictably good job blending the live-action and computer-generated elements.  Particularly impressive are the new stone sculptures that look and sound amazing as they skulk around on their non-existent appendages.  The introduction of Sir Lancelot allows screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman to push the boundaries between fact and fiction.  This results in the film’s most exciting set piece, which finds the gang battling a multi-headed, mythical serpent.  Sure, it’s a cheat, but it amps up the story with some real danger for younger viewers.

monkey

Older viewers, too, will find their share of enjoyable winks.  Upon rising from tomb, for instance, Pharoah Merenkahre is overjoyed to learn of Larry’s Jewish lineage.  “I love Jews!” he effuses.  “I have over 40,000 of them!”  It’s that sort of dark humor that keeps you chuckling between the bouts of manic action.  The most ingenious scene in SOTT follows Larry, Lancelot and Roosevelt as they take a jaunt through Escher’s famous lithograph, Relativity.  Levy and his production designers really push themselves to new heights, producing a scene that will amuse adults and baffle kids.

Most of the faults with SOTT reside within a script that sometimes keeps things too simple, even for this crude premise.  The “fix” for the Tablet is so mind-numbingly stupid that it might have been accomplished strictly by accident.  The character of Sir Lancelot, too, has allegiances and motivations that shift whenever the plot requires a quick change of direction.  The most egregious sin, however, is a saccharine epilogue that greatly undermines the moments of heartfelt resignation that preceded it.  You can almost feel the studio executives crying out as one, “You can’t end this movie on such a downer!”  Nevermind that this “downer” is actually an uplifting moment of self-realization for Larry, his son, and all of their friends; what they have is great, but it wasn’t meant to last forever.

Still, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb largely succeeds because it gives us what we loved in the previous movies, with just enough new stuff to keep it fresh.  More importantly, it respects the story and the characters enough to give them a proper sendoff.  These characters aren’t trying to save the world; they’re just trying to hang on to each other.  We can indulge them one more night in the museum for such a noble cause.

— J.R. Kinnard


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