None of the entries in the Night at the Museum series could ever pass for high art, but a wealth of comedic talent gave the first two installments a madcap energy that somewhat forgave their childish premises. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the third and supposedly final edition in the franchise, is nothing more than an uncomfortably transparent contractual obligation. Gone is the sly social commentary of Night at the Museum (whose script, by State alums Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, poked fun at Americans and their disregard for history) and the anarchic slapstick of Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian. Instead, Secret of the Tomb screenwriters David Guion and Michael Handelman simply repurpose various storylines and jokes from the previous films, ladle in a sentimental father-son subplot, and call it a day, an unceremonious finale to a series whose phantasmagoria would have been better served in the hands of Joe Dante or Tsui Hark.
All the familiar faces are back: American Museum of Natural History watchman Larry (Ben Stiller) oversees the cast of historical figures—Teddy Roosevelt (Robin Williams), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck)—who come to life each night thanks to a mythical Egyptian tablet that quite unsubtly resembles an iPad. For some barely explained reason, the tablet is losing its power, so Larry and company travel to the British Museum to find out what’s wrong. Of course, a new museum means a new cast of characters, so a conceited King Lancelot (Dan Stevens) and an overzealous security guard (Rebel Wilson) join the adventure, but these new faces offer only diminishing returns, while veterans of the series, namely Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan as a Laurel and Hardy-esque cowboy and Roman soldier, respectively, slum for their paychecks with a marked lack of interest. The only inspired set piece transpires when Larry, Roosevelt, and Lancelot somehow fall into M.C. Escher’s Relativity, and the famous lithograph becomes a metaphysical playground for some delightfully old-school pratfalls and physical humor. It’s a thrilling sequence that also offers a parting acknowledgment of the franchise’s wasted potential.