Ben Stiller has always been something of a long term franchiser. His ‘Fockers’ trilogy spanning ten years, and a long awaited sequel to Zoolander just now seeming to come alive thirteen years after the original. However, perhaps his most beloved series so far is the Night at the Museum movies, which started in 2006 with it’s inventive and rather cute original, continued in 2009 with it’s subpar but profitable sequel, and now concludes with Secret of the Tomb. Does Ben do a good job of cutting the chord of his most lucrative baby?
Secret of the Tomb finds Museum of Natural History night guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) enjoying some success after turning the nightly alive exhibits into a profitable venture, passing them off as special effects. However, when the magical Egyptian tablet that brings them to life starts to corrode, causing the exhibits to start acting strange, Larry and a host of friends including Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Jedediah (Owen Wilson) Octavius (Steve Coogan), and a couple others must travel to London where the rest of Egyptian pharaoh Ahlmenrah’s (Rami Malek) family is, in order to hopefully figure out how to set things right.
Going into Secret of the Tomb I only had one request. “Please be better than the second one.” Fortunately, I’m not only happy to say that it is a great deal better, but it actually comes fairly close to the original.
The story is surprisingly robust for something that could have so easily been phoned in, particularly when it comes to the dynamics of family that run though the characters. For example, Larry is having some trouble getting his son Nick (Skyler Gisondo) to commit to a college, as he wants to go out to small islands and DJ. Uh Oh, how many times have we seen this before right? However, the writing actually does a very strong job of treating these characters with intelligence, so instead of Larry reacting with hate and distain throughout the whole film, they actually communicate and talk with each other, and the conflict comes more from Larry accepting his son’s decisions within himself, than towards Nick. These nice little complexities are littered throughout all the film’s elements, even at it’s most ridiculous, and it manages to make you care.
Unlike last time, everyone actually seems like they want to be here. Stiller is always a reliable lead in these types of films, providing fun deadpan contrast to all the craziness going on, while not resorting to the mugging that sometimes plagues his performances. Meanwhile, the late Robin Williams isn’t given a whole ton to do, but is clearly having a ton of fun as Theodore Roosevelt, while Wilson and Coogan are still their respective exaggerated stereotypes, but the film has them in it just enough to be endearing. However, the standout here is without a doubt Dan Stevens as Lancelot. Somebody must have told this guy he was in a remake of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because he performs with a similar comic intensity and timing.
Director Shawn Levy manages to find quite a few ways to keep things inventive here. The progression dosen’t just feel like a series of lame set-pieces like in the second one, but creative contortions of the museum. There’s one scene involving a fight within a very unique kind of painting that is one of the most visually stunning scenes I’ve seen all year, and while the film never quite matches that sequence, there’s a lot of other strong touches that I’ll leave you to find out.
The film also surprisingly serves as a very strong conclusion to the trilogy. Not only do all of the characters get very nice arcs that seem to fully finish their stories, but there are a couple ‘Toy Story 3′ moments here that just may tear you up a bit. In particular, Williams’ final speech towards the end of the film is almost prophetic towards the actor’s tragic passing, and since this is the last time we will see him on screen, it’s a chilling moment. It dosen’t totally stick the landing, taking things just a bit too far with it’s final scene, but it’s much better than it could have been.
‘Much better than it could have been’ really is a blanket statement in describing Secret of the Tomb. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a great movie, but it’s a very solid family movie that treats it’s audience with respect and intelligence, while still providing a great deal of fun. If you’re going to take the kids to something this Christmas, this is a sure bet.
We’ll see about that ‘Into The Woods’…