It’s not going to win Oscars or show up on critics’ Top 10 lists, but Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb has one thing going for it that even many of this season’s prestige films don’t: It’s kind of fun, unembarrassingly, and not least of all because the people who made it look like they had a good time doing so. There’s a sprightly, shaggy quality on display, which instantly distinguishes it from just another big heaping pile of studio money. The fact that the series has, since the release of the 2006 first film, inspired sleepovers at New York’s Natural History Museum demonstrates a certain good-heartedness in the franchise that comes through on the screen. Transformers never inspired a sleepover in a truck dealership.
This third movie in the series once again stars Ben Stiller as watchman Larry, whose exhibitions come to life when the sun goes down. A magical tablet that’s rapidly disintegrating compels Larry and his pals (Owen Wilson as a cowboy, Steve Coogan as a Roman emperor, Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt) to head to the British Museum in London in search of a remedy. A lineup of brief and extended cameos keep the plot buoyant even when the sight of a CG-enchanced Capuchin monkey grows weary. As a security guard, Rebel Wilson’s not on screen for 60 seconds before describing her blonde pony tail as ”a golden poo sitting on my shoulder.” But she drives within the PG lines, all the way to a cute climactic Dirty Dancing homage with a Neanderthal (also played by Stiller). Dan Stevens, capping a wild movie year that also included The Guest and A Walk Among the Tombstones, plays Sir Lancelot, who awakens in the museum and eventually storms the stage of a West End production of Camelot, intent on slaying the major Hollywood star playing King Arthur.
Many of the jokes, of course, are groaners. When Teddy Roosevelt begins to malfunction, he spits out one-liners from other famous presidents, climaxing with the W classic, ”Heck of a job, Brownie!” However, Williams’ final scene—in his final film—makes for a poignant testament, as the tired, waxworks Roosevelt chooses peaceful repose over the endless safari. Williams is also a part of the movie’s most imaginative sequence, in which Roosevelt and two other characters all become stuck in M.C. Escher’s famous perspective-skewering lithograph Relativity. The animation of the Escher world is a total pop-art blast, recalling a-ha’s great 1986 ”Take On Me” video, and the scene ends with a terrific nod to the suspended laws of gravity at play in the piece. It might only last for a minute, but no bad movie would ever think to include a minute that absurdly clever. B