Third time turns out to be the charm for Ben Stiller and the animated figures from the Museum of Natural History. Having worked their wonders in a family-friendly 2006 box-office smash, then squandered that good will in a laborious 2008 sequel, Stiller, director Shawn Levy, and a new team of screenwriters have redeemed themselves with this lively, entertaining fantasy yarn.
The second film almost collapsed under its own weight, while the latest effort favors simplicity, to its benefit. Assuming that we’ve seen the earlier movies, little time is wasted on exposition. Stiller is back on staff at the Museum in Manhattan. A crisis arises when a magical tablet in the Egyptian exhibit threatens to drain the magic that has brought everyone to life, from Sacajawea to a dinosaur skeleton. The solution: travel to the British Museum in London and try to recapture the life-force of the tablet.
A parallel story thread deals with Stiller’s teenage son (Skyler Gisondo), who’s not sure he wants to go to college, which causes his father great concern. Having the boy along for the London adventure enables the writers to give him and his father a shared experience that leads to a happy resolution. The screenplay is credited to David Guion & Michael Handelman, from a story they conceived with Mark Friedman.
Most of the familiar cast members are back—notably, and poignantly, Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt—joined by such newcomers as Dan Stevens, who’s very funny as Sir Lancelot, Rebel Wilson, as a love-starved security guard, and Ben Kingsley, whose solemn demeanor suits his role as an Egyptian potentate. It’s fun to see Dick Van Dyke in a lively cameo and historically notable to see his partner-in-crime, Mickey Rooney, in a brief, final screen appearance.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb has more than its share of surprises and action set-pieces, with some gags aimed at adults more than kids, but most of it resting comfortably within a PG rating. It’s pure fun, and in that sense it achieves exactly what it sets out to do. I wish I could say the same for some other more “serious” year-end releases.