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Non-Review Review: Night at the Museum III – Secret of the Tomb

Night at the Museum III: Secret of the Tomb is fairly inoffensive family fare. It largely sets out to do what it wants to do – providing a sense of closure to the hits series while encouraging its all-star cast to have a bit of family-friendly fun together. The movie is hardly the most compelling adventure; it never manages to generate substantial stakes, it introduces a convenient third-act villain as the plot demands, it is frequently distracted by individual set pieces. At the same time, it feels like the movie largely hits the targets that it sets for itself.

Knight at the Museum...

Knight at the Museum…

The Night at the Museum series has managed to draw together a pretty spectacular cast over these three films. Indeed, Night at the Museum III largely coasts on the familiar faces and the established characters. Ben Stiller leads a bunch of colourful characters around the British Museum, but Night at the Museum III takes the audience’s familiarity with these characters for granted. It feels like Theodore Roosevelt, Atilla the Hun and Sacajawea are not here because the plot demands it, but because they happened to have the good fortune to feature in the original.

When the movie does make use of existing characters, it tends to play it broad. The original Night at the Museum was hardly subtle, but it feels like Night at the Museum III has evolved its various players into archetypes not so much based on any real or historical characters, but instead based around the characters playing them. The Octavius and Jedediah sequences always felt like like a wacky Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan role-play, but by this point the characters have evolved into caricatures of those caricatures.

Everything just erupts...

Everything just erupts…

The movie focuses considerable attention on the new characters. As one might expect from the British setting, Night at the Museum III draws in a wealth of British talent to support existing cast members Ricky Gervais and Steve Coogan. Rebel Wilson, Ben Kingsley and Dan Stevens are all given considerable attention in the plot – playing a more significant role than many of the returning characters. These are still broadly drawn archetypes, but they work well enough in the context of a one-hundred minute film.

There is a sense watching the Night at the Museum films that the cast is probably fun to be around; that the cast and crew working on the film are generally having a really good time in the company of one another. So the film offers all sorts of indulgent sequences – whether it is Sir Lancelot comparing Larry to his old colleague “Erik the Fool” or the Pharoah Merenkahre talking about how wonderful the Jewish people are and having Passover explained to him. The actors have fun with these conversations, making the most of moments that probably could have been trimmed.

Shocking behaviour...

Shocking behaviour…

This contributes to the sense that there is very little meat to Night at the Museum III. There is a lot of fat that might have been cut from the finished product, but it’s fat that provides the series (for better or worse) with its flavour. Night at the Museum III never really works as a film in and of itself, coming together better as a bunch of skits and set pieces built around a common theme. So, while the film works in a thematic throughline about fathers and sons, it is also perfectly willing to have a character randomly turn evil because the film needs a villain for the third act.

To be fair, this is only a problem so far as Night at the Museum III makes it a problem. The movie delves into the mythology of the series – the back story that explains how and why these characters can suddenly come to life. The movie opens on an archealogical excavation in Egypt during the 1930s, and exposes the secret history of the magic that brings the museum to life. This feels more than a little clumsy; there is no need to de-mythogise those fantastical elements; it is enough to take magic as magic, without imposing history and rules upon it.

London or bussed...

London or bussed…

Indeed, by bringing in these outside elements, Night at the Museum III opens itself up to all sorts of uncomfortable questions. The movie opens on a dig in Egypt, with the trip to London necessitated by the decision to split the treasure between the United Kingdom and the United States. In the end, tough decisions need to be made about what artifacts and displays remain in London and which return to the United States. All of which dances around the awkward question of what the Egyptians must think about all this.

To be fair, exploitation and imperialism are pretty heavy subjects for a family film about magical exhibits that come to life. The problems is that Night at the Museum III makes these elements an issue by explicitly asking which exhibits belong where, having been divvied up by the United States and the United Kingdom with little thought to the local culture. It isn’t a big issue, but it feels like Night at the Museum III is not as careful around it as it might be. Then again, it is not as if the series has a history of tackling weighty subject matter.

Feeling boxed in...

Feeling boxed in…

Still, there are moments of resonance to be found here. It is impossible to watch any of Robin Williams’ final performances without considering his passing. Although Night at the Museum III does not give him much to do, there are moments that have some (undoubtedly unintentional) weight behind them. Early in the film, Roosevelt finds himself struggling to control his own faculties. He is also the character most ovetly affected by the decay threatening the exhibits, losing control his hands and arms as the journey progresses.

It is a little uncomfortable to see such a vulnerable performance from the actor, even if it had been written and filmed long before his passing. (Posters in London suggest that the film was shot in January or February 2014.) Night at the Museum III sensitively downplays this plot thread as much as it can. It feels appropriate that Theodore Roosevelt is the last character to take his bow as the sun rises in the morning, and to argue that even those long gone continue to exist in memory and as inspiration.

A tablet will cure all that...

A tablet will cure all that…

There are a few other inspired sequences buried in the film. At one point, an MC Escher painting comes to life, with suitably charming results. Sir Lancelot crashes a performance of Camelot, only to discover that it was not entirely what he expected. Early in the film, the constellations themselves come alive. These little moments never really coalesce into something spectacular, but they do create a sense of charm to proceedings. As with the other films in the series, it is nice to think of museums as magical places where the past comes alive.

Night at the Museum III never really works as a whole. Instead, it makes for a suitably diverting showcase for an all-star cast who seem to be having a great deal of fun working together. The result is unspectacular, but also inoffensive.

2 Responses

  1. I wasn’t expecting much so I was pleasantly surprised that it was a bit better then those bits Steve Allen would do with historical figures on PBS…..lol

    • 🙂

      Yeah, it’s not terrible, but I’d stretch to describe it as actively good. Some of the Robin Williams stuff is hard to watch, though.

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