×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb’

Ancient Egyptian magic, father-son bonding and monkey piss abound in this solid, satisfying conclusion to Ben Stiller's family entertainment juggernaut.

With:
Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Dan Stevens, Rebel Wilson, Skyler Gisondo, Rami Malek, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Andrea Martin, Ben Kingsley, Rachel Harris, Matt Frewer, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Anjali Jay, Crystal the Monkey.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2692250/

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.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb'

Reviewed at Ziegfeld Theater, New York, Dec. 11, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production: A 20th Century Fox release and presentation of a 21 Laps/1492 Entertainment production. Produced by Shawn Levy, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe. Executive producers, Mary McLaglen, Josh McLaglen, Dan Levine, Michael Barnathan, David Guion, Michael Handelman. Co-producer, Blondel Aidoo.

Crew: Directed by Shawn Levy. Screenplay, David Guion, Michael Handelman; story, Mark Friedman, Guion, Handelman, based on characters created by Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant. Camera (Technicolor, RED Digital Cinema), Guillermo Navarro; editor, Dean Zimmerman; music, Alan Silvestri; production designer, Martin Whist; supervising art director, Greg Berry; art directors, Catherine Ircha, Nigel Evans, Sandra Tanaka; set decorator, Peter Lando; costume designer, Marlene Stewart; sound (Dolby Atmos), Chris Duesterdiek; sound designer/supervising sound editor, Craig Henighan; sound designers, Warren Hendriks, Coll Anderson; re-recording mixers, Andy Nelson, Henighan; visual effects supervisor, Erik Nash; visual effects producer, Jennifer Meislohn; visual effects, MPC, Method Studios, Digital Domain; Cinesite, lola VFX, Zoic Studios; makeup effects and creature design, Adrien Morot, Kathy Tse; stunt coordinator/second unit director, Brad Martin; associate producer, Rand Geiger; assistant director, Josh McLaglen; casting, Donna Isaacson.

With: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Dan Stevens, Rebel Wilson, Skyler Gisondo, Rami Malek, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Andrea Martin, Ben Kingsley, Rachel Harris, Matt Frewer, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Anjali Jay, Crystal the Monkey.

More Film

  • Suro

    Lastor, ‘The Endless Trench’s’ Irusoin, Malmo Team for Mikel Gurrea’s ‘Suro’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    SAN SEBASTIAN – Barcelona-based Lastor Media and Malmo Pictures have teamed with San Sebastian’s Irusoin to produce “Suro” (The Cork), the feature debut of Mikel Gurrea and a product of San Sebastian’s Ikusmira Berriak program. The film stars Laia Costa, who broke through with Sebastian Schipper’s “Victoria” and also serves as executive producer, and Pol López [...]

  • Ane

    Madrid’s ECAM Incubator Develops Terrorism Drama 'Ane'

    SAN SEBASTIAN — For the second year in a row, the ECAM Madrid Film School has paired a number of up-and-coming filmmakers with various industry veterans for an Incubator program part of the school broader development arm called The Screen. For its initial edition in 2018, this Incubator selected five feature projects, putting the selected [...]

  • Roma Cinematography

    'Mission: Impossible - Fallout' and 'Roma' Win LMGI Awards for Motion Pictures

    Two major 2018 releases – actioner “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” and critics’ darling “Roma” – were honored for film location work by the Location Managers Guild International at a ceremony this evening at the Eli & Edythe Broad Stage in Santa Monica. The 6th Annual LMGI Awards also recognized “Chernobyl” and “Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan” [...]

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content