The Night at the Museum series hasn’t exactly been anybody’s idea of great cinema – or even okay cinema. None of these films has a particularly well-conceived plot, or emotional through-line. They’re mainly excuses to showcase characters from different periods in history coming to life, often through the magic of CGI – a pleasant diversion for kids, an inoffensive babysitter for the parents. But director Shawn Levy, at least in the previous two films, seemed like he could handle neither the big setpieces nor the more intimate moments: he trampled on quiet scenes and drained big ones of their energy.
All that said, this latest, and presumably final, entry in the series is not without its virtues. This time around, the modesty helps. The idea is that the magic Tablet of Akhmenrah, the Egyptian artifact that brings the Museum of Natural History’s various exhibits to life, is starting to corrode, and its power withering away. That means that the various characters that our hero Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) has befriended over the years – Teddy Roosevelt (the late Robin Williams), Egyptian pharaoh Akhmenrah (Rami Malek), miniature cowboy Jedediah (Owen Wilson) and his Roman general friend Octavius (Steve Coogan), among others – are all in danger of turning back to their stiff, lifeless, wax/bronze/stone/porcelain selves. That necessitates a trip to the British Museum, where the rest of Akhmenrah’s family can be found (including Ben Kingsley as his father, which means that Kingsley is currently in theaters playing an Egyptian pharaoh in this movie and one of their Jewish slaves in Exodus.
It’s a pageant: Rebel Wilson shows up (endearingly) as a British museum security guard, and our heroes even have a rather self-important Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens) to deal with. The gags this time feel somehow both more throwaway and more inventive. At one point, Larry and Teddy Roosevelt jump into an M.C. Escher woodcut, and have to navigate its twisted sense of space as they struggle to retrieve the tablet; the result is like an A-Ha video on mushrooms. Meanwhile, Jedediah and Octavius find themselves in an interactive diorama of Pompeii, outrunning a sea of lava, when Dexter the capuchin monkey shows up, lumbering among the smoke like Godzilla. There’s a pretty hilarious bit involving Larry and his inarticulate, dim caveman doppelganger Laaah; the credits say Stiller plays both parts, but I spent the entire movie convinced Laaah was being played by a heavily made-up Tom Cruise, and am still not entirely convinced it wasn’t him. Anyway, it’s all dumb, but fun.
It’s also curiously affecting, for perhaps unintentional reasons. Much of the film involves Larry restoring the tablet of Akhmenrah to keep his friends from effectively dying – or at least returning to their previously lifeless selves, a process that begins well before the film’s climax. That establishes a sad urgency throughout, and the fact that the late Robin Williams is but the most prominent member of the supporting cast gives it a kind of weight. This is one of the beloved actor’s absolute final performances; I think he has an indie yet to be properly released, and one last animated role coming up. Playing Teddy Roosevelt in these films was nowhere near a highpoint for Williams, but it did speak to his fondness for these CGI-infused kids’ spectacles. His final farewell here is gentle, reflectively and almost unbearably moving. It lends the the film a retroactive grace.