Blind, armless Roman statues writhing under the beam of a flashlight. Reanimated mummies frantically banging their linen-wrapped fists against display-case glass. Squads of faceless mannequins marching in Confederate uniform. If nothing else, Night At The Museum: Secret Of The Tomb is a reminder that a lot of popular kids’ entertainment could easily pass for the stuff of children’s nightmares. Plenty of great films have toed the line between fantasy and horror. (See the collected works of Joe Dante.) Secret Of The Tomb isn’t one of them, though a viewer can’t help but be impressed by how the movie manages to run through the full spectrum of morbid pre-teen obsessions—mummies, Pompeii, disfigurement, being buried alive—without ever registering as anything more than routine family matinee fodder.
And yet, it’s a heck of a weird movie, in which characters are able to leap into M.C. Escher’s Relativity à la Looney Tunes: Back In Action, Ben Stiller plays dual roles as a millionaire night-shift guard and a magically animated wax caveman made in his likeness, and assorted inanimate objects and artworks are brought to life but then left ignorant in ways that are a little bit unsettling. The plot—in short, an ancient Egyptian tablet that brings museum exhibits to life is snatched by a wax figure of Lancelot (Dan Stevens), who escapes in search of a West End revival of Camelot—is a school-field-trip daydream dosed with inadvertent creepiness. (The model for this and prior Night At The Museum movies is Joe Johnston’s Jumanji, itself a kind of Hellraiser for kids.)
Director Shawn Levy cut his teeth on ’90s Nickelodeon nostalgia staples like Animorphs and The Secret World Of Alex Mack, and, in many ways, his Night At The Museum movies carry on that era’s pre-Hunger Games sensibilities; pitched at 10-year-old kids, rather than 10-year-old teenagers, they might as well be soundtracked by the crinkling of a 100-page Scholastic Press paperback. They traffic in the kind of reassuringly idealized version of adulthood that carries over from picture books into chapter books, where grown-ups are defined by their jobs (preferably uniformed) and the old are happy to live in retirement homes.
Having sold off his business at the end of Night At The Museum: Battle Of The Smithsonian and returned to his job at the American Museum Of Natural History, Larry Daley (Stiller) discovers that the tablet, which brings the museum’s exhibits to life after dark, is losing its magic, causing his assorted taxidermy and undead pals to go berserk and attack patrons. After consulting with former night-shift guard Cecil (Dick Van Dyke), Larry learns that the secret to restoring the tablet was known only to Merenkahre (Ben Kingsley), whose mummy is on display in London.
Cue “London Calling” and Larry sneaking into the British Museum, accompanied by his teenage son Nick (Skyler Gisondo), the aforementioned caveman, and most of the cast of the previous Night At The Museum movies. Compared to the cameo-packed Battle Of The Smithsonian, Secret Of The Tomb is fleet and straightforward—or about as fleet and straightforward as a movie in which a dozen characters of varying size and intelligibility chase after a magic tablet can be. Having found Merenkhare, but lost the tablet to a Lancelot who, when delusional, believes that he exists (a lot to unpack there), Larry and the gang give chase. As sunrise inches closer, the wax-figure members of the crew find their limbs stiffening, their eyes turning to glass, and their minds fading into the museum-exhibit version of Alzheimer’s. (In the case of Teddy Roosevelt—played by Robin Williams in his final live-action role—that means cycling through broad impressions of other U.S. presidents.)
Friends losing control of their senses and attacking each other; the aging process represented by live actors turning into inanimate objects; a character’s wax nose melting into a foot-long drip after standing too close to a flame; tiny, diorama-sized people being trapped in a scale model of the destruction of Pompeii—frankly, there isn’t a whole lot about this scenario that isn’t disturbing on some level. Secret Of The Tomb plays it as a source of corny jokes, pop-culture references, and father-son bonding moments. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of film that shouldn’t be expected to engage with its assorted bizarre subtexts—but what a movie it could be if it did.