It is fitting that “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb,” is all about loyalty, because loyalty is about all that is left for this worn out franchise.
The problem here is that the first “Night at the Museum” was a novelty act. When the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton comes to life at the Museum of Natural History in New York, in that film, the audience – following comedian Ben Stiller’s lead – goes through a quick sequence of shock, fear and amusement. But now that we’re into the third installment, there isn’t much novelty left and the effort to wring a laugh out of a new dino skeleton that also plays fetch with a big bone, shows loyalty to a fault. That is to say, it no longer tickles the funny bone.
In this final chapter of the trilogy, the source of the magic that brings museum exhibits to life at night, the Egyptian Tablet of Ahkmenrah, is deteriorating once again. If it fails, this will leave the franchise’s historic characters – Attila the Hun, Teddy Roosevelt and Sacagawea among them – forever entombed as lifeless exhibits. No more night time fire setting by a bunch of lovable Neanderthals wearing animal skins and no more epic battles in miniature between the Egyptian diaspora exhibit featuring Steve Coogan as Octavius and the neighboring one with a wild west theme featuring Owen Wilson as Jedediah.
But first, as the deterioration sets in on the tablet, it tends to create chaos with the living exhibits who suddenly can no longer control their behavior. Chaos and mayhem ensues, so it’s time to save the Tablet once again.
To set everything straight, night watchman Larry (played by Stiller) has to bring the Tablet to the British Museum of Natural History in London, where, Ahkmenrah’s parents, Merenkahre and Shepseheret, can come to life and tell them how to keep the Tablet healthy. This is where a whole new set of characters can come alive and where we are introduced to Rebel Wilson as security guard Tilly, who adds a few minutes of fresh comedy to the occasion.
The plot turns on the awakened, befuddled wax Sir Lancelot, who takes a side trip out of the museum, where he finds Sir Arthur and the Lady Guinevere who are characters in a London production of Camelot. At this point, the largehearted Lancelot decides that the Tablet is the Holy Grail. So there are a few other messes to sort through.
Unfortunately, since this is the end of the trilogy, the script calls for each of the familiar characters to go through their old gags one last time. That means Dexter the Capuchin monkey has to pee on something and Larry and Attila have to go through their communication hassles once again.
The other shoe is going to drop here, however, and this is because the film features two beloved actors who are no longer with us: Robin Williams, who plays Teddy Roosevelt and Mickey Rooney, who plays the retired security guard Gus.
Williams, of course, is cast perfectly in this role and he does well enough with this, his third go around, although there isn’t much authentic drama in the script to help him out. Rooney, who died at age 93 in April, turns on the famous charm. Like the tablet, there is not much magic left, but who cares? His timeless charm comes through and you can almost hear him think, “I’m not going to throw these lines away. I’m going to go out like a pro.” He does, of course. I hope he got a wild applause from the film crew at the end of that day’s shoot.
Dick Van Dyke plays Cecil Fredericks and he’s no spring chicken, either. He’s 89 and looks fairly spry in his opening bit, where he’s dancing up a storm at a karaoke event at a retirement home.
Loyalty is not quite enough of a reason to recommend this movie. “It could be worse,” isn’t a very ringing endorsement, either. Stiller, in this case, just lets the movie pivot around him and he’s not a bad anchor to the whole thing, but he also fails to provide the inspiration the film needs. If you love the franchise, by all means, see it through. A little fan loyalty isn’t out of place. Beyond that, two and a half stars is about the best I can do.