The past may be immortal, but not so the reanimating magic that turns New York’s American Museum of Natural History into a dusk-to-dawn happy hour for dinosaurs and Neanderthals, explorers and conquerors, and a capuchin monkey with an overactive bladder. Such is the dilemma this motley crew (once more under the leadership of Ben Stiller’s harried night watchman) faces in “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” a most enjoyable capper to director Shawn Levy and producer Chris Columbus’ cheerfully silly and sneakily smart family-entertainment juggernaut. A fond farewell, to the series and to two of its stars — Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams — “Tomb” offers little in the way of secrets of surprises, but should add much holiday cheer to Fox’s box-office coffers.
The “Night” movies haven’t much endeared themselves to highbrow critics — among those who’ve even bothered to write about them — but it’s easy to understand the popular appeal of the franchise ($987 million worldwide and counting), which has cannily married state-of-the-art special effects to a high-concept premise (loosely adapted from Croatian author Milan Trenc’s 1993 children’s book) located halfway between “Ghostbusters” and “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” At the same time, the films — especially the 2006 original (scripted by “Reno 911” alums Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant) — have entertained a slyly subversive commentary on Americans and their relationship to history.
In the first film, the AMNH was in the midst of declining attendance and budget cuts, until word got out about the institution’s enchanted nighttime special effects — the Disneyfication of history, if you will — and lines formed around the block. And while he was the nominal hero of the piece, Stiller’s Larry Daley was initially depicted as something of an ignoramus who mistook Christopher Columbus for Galileo and Sacagawea for a deaf-mute.
It seemed fascinating that such an august institution would allow itself (and its public) to be thusly depicted in a major Hollywood movie — except that, in an equally fascinating convergence of life and art, the movie sparked a 20 percent uptick in real-life museum attendance, along with a new nighttime sleepover program that continues to this day. That satiric edge was dulled only slightly in the 2009 sequel, “Battle of the Smithsonian,” as a still-beleaguered AMNH willingly divested itself of some of its venerable exhibits to make room for high-tech holographic avatars supposedly more appealing to the smartphone generation (an all-too-believable depiction of how calcified arts-administration types tend to think). So it’s unsurprising that “Secret of the Tomb” brings things full circle by suggesting, gently but persistently, that the true magic of history needs no hocus-pocus accoutrements.
The path to such enlightenment is paved with 90-odd minutes of CGI-enhanced slapstick mayhem, starting with a black-tie dinner from hell — a gala reopening of the Hayden Planetarium during which the museum’s lauded “animatronics” (as the public believes them to be) go haywire, pitting Manhattan’s philanthropic elite against a rampaging T-Rex and Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher). Something is amiss, it seems, with the gilded Tablet of Akmenrah, the ancient Egyptian relic responsible for the museum’s mysterious powers (here seen being excavated during a 1930s archeological dig in a lavish, Indiana Jones-style flashback). Solving the mystery entails making a trip to the British Museum, home of Akmenrah’s parents, Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley) and Shepseheret (Anjali Jay). (What the p.c. anti-“Exodus” brigade will make of the fact that the British-Indian Kingsley, cast as an Israelite elder in that movie, plays a pharaoh here is anyone’s guess.)
Of course, a new museum means a raft of other new characters, the standouts being “Downton Abbey” alum Dan Stevens as a vainglorious Sir Lancelot, and Rebel Wilson (clearly constrained by the movie’s PG rating) as the BM’s sex-starved night guard. Mostly, though, “Secret of the Tomb” serves as a reunion of old friends, like the Lilliputian-sized cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and Roman general Octavius (Steve Coogan), who find themselves deposited in a scale-model Pompeii (Coogan’s second visit to the volcanic site this year, after “The Trip to Italy”); and single dad Larry’s only child, Nick (Skyler Gisondo, replacing Jake Cherry), now a moody teen with dreams of becoming an EDM DJ in Ibiza.
And if the “Night at the Museum” movies are undeniably the sort of work an actor like Coogan takes so that he can afford to make Michael Winterbottom movies — or, in Stiller’s case, work with Noah Baumbach — the actors nonetheless conjure a warm, infectious esprit de corps. Stiller in particular gets to stretch his comic muscles this time by also playing Laaa, the latest addition to the museum’s group of fire-questing Neanderthals, who recognizes in Larry a shared genetic connection (the challenges of parenthood being another of the franchise’s running themes).
Levy keeps the London scenes moving at a breezy clip, especially once Lancelot, convinced that the tablet is actually his coveted Holy Grail, absconds into the night … and onto the stage of a West End revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot.” But as before, the movie’s heart of avuncular wisdom is Teddy Roosevelt, played grandly by Williams, who couldn’t have known this would be one of his last performances, yet gives the film an undeniably elegiac touch as noble Teddy, diminished by the tablet’s waning power, watches his own extremities turn back into useless wax. Finally, Levy and the writers (David Guion, Michael Handelman and Mark Friedman) find an out that is at once sweet and sorrowful, a closing of the door while still leaving it open just a crack, and an altogether satisfying end to a series that has been vastly more entertaining than it had any reason to be.
“Tomb” is filled with nifty visual gags, the best of which is a three-way duel set inside M.C. Escher’s physics-defying lithograph “Relativity” (a nod to the delirious museum chase from Joe Dante’s “Looney Tunes: Back in Action”). Production values are typically topnotch, especially the work of returning d.p. Guillermo Navarro, who bathes the London scenes in a radiant blue moonlight, and VFX supervisor Erik Nash’s Oscar-shortlisted effects, which achieve a rare seamlessness of practical and computer-generated elements.