I wouldn’t say that I’m a Ben Stiller fan, but I also wouldn’t say I’m a hater. I’ve always respected his directorial works like The Cable Guy and Tropic Thunder. But as a leading man Stiller can be hit or miss, and it seems that every time he does hit, he’s ready to make enough sequels to drown out the charms of the original (See: Meet the Parents through Little Fockers). Sadly, that’s what happens with Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the third and final installment in the series. Even if we were to judge this film on the sliding scale of “it’s only a kid’s movie,” which I won’t do because we live in a world with The Muppets, Pixar, and The Lego Movie, Night at the Museum 3 is still an underwhelming effort.
After a silly prologue in 1930’s Egypt where the mystical tablet that brings all the museum exhibits to life is discovered, the film takes us back to the Museum of Natural History in New York. With its nighttime exhibits brought to life, the museum is the toast of the town. During a big fundraiser gala at the museum, where Larry Daley (Stiller) is in charge of the special effects, the magical tablet begins to corrode and the exhibits act in a wild and dangerous manner. After the public embarrassment, the museum’s curator, Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais), is fired. In order to solve the mystery of the tablet, Larry must transport the remains of Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) to London, where the remains of his parents are. Of course, Larry is accompanied by Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), the monkey Dexter, the miniature duo of Octavius (Steve Coogan) and Jedidiah (Owen Wilson), his teenage son Nick (Skyler Gisondo), and his Neanderthal doppleganger Laaa (Stiller again). Larry and company must elude the prying eyes of the London museum’s security guard Tilly (Rebel Wilson) and seek help from Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens) in order to learn the secret of the tomb.
Where the first two films were lightly charming, boasting impressive casts, and did contain a few nuggets of history, Secret of the Tomb is devoid of charm, most of the returning cast just sleepwalking through their parts. In his final onscreen appearance, Robin Williams’ performance is frankly depressing. There are no signs of his manic comic energy or his soft sentimentality. One of the more interesting comedic actresses working today, Rebel Wilson is absolutely wasted, though she does elevate a few of the porous lines she’s given. By far the best characters from the previous two movies, Octavius and Jedidiah, are such minor figures (not just in size) that even their immense talent can’t overcome their characters’ deficit of importance. While Stiller is inoffensive in his sleepwalking reprisal of Larry Daley, his other role as Laaa indicates a dearth of ideas before filming. Poor Skyler Gisondo. Not only is he given an awful storyline concerning an overbearing father, but due to biological forces that are out of his control, his voice is absolutely grating. Just the final irritant on the pile.
It’s too easy to look at the poorly utilized cast as chief among this film’s sins, but it’s even worse than that. From the early going the film tries to evoke as much goodwill as it can from callbacks to the previous movies, including jokes from the first film. As we all know, jokes get funnier through repetition. But this is a film determined to run every one of its limited stable of gags into the ground. Even worse is how this film shortchanges its female characters. The only female historical figure in the film for any length of time is Sacajawea, played again by Mizuo Peck, who was in the previous two films. Her character is given little to do, and is rendered basically mute. Apparently, the history books have only Sacajawea, Amelia Earhart, and, uh, guess that’s it. Sorry, ladies.
Director Shawn Levy, who made the lightly likable This is Where I Leave You earlier this year, brings no passion to any of his frames. Combined with the lackluster performances, this movie feels like Night at the Museum: Contractually Obligated Third Film. It saddened me to see Dan Stevens, though he does give the film’s best performance, in this. He’s better than this. But, then again, so is everyone else involved. When you get right down to it, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb asks its audience to care about wax figures without ever really bringing them to life.