I reviewed the first Night at the Museum film back in November. I tell the story of how I came to watch it in that article, but at the time none of the other films were on Disney+. That changed at some point and I found them this week, so I watched the two sequels.
The first is 2009’s Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and the third, and so-far last, is 2014’s Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.
I say “so-far last” because it looks like Disney is trying to revive the IP in some way, shape, or form. But of course. I guess that’s fitting because it’s kind of in keeping with the exhibits in the film that are in whichever museum winds up with the Golden Tablet of Pharaoh Ahkmenrah — they just won’t die.
The first film caught me off-guard and pulled me in because it sets up (and sets off) the premise so economically and quickly, and Ben Stiller has a great knack for playing that Everyperson character we can all relate to.
Each of the three films follow the same general outline, naturally — Stiller’s Larry Daley winds up getting drawn into (or back to) the (night) lives of his beloved museum exhibits, managing to survive the challenge and learn things along the way. There’s a very strong father-son element built into the trilogy, set up in the first film as Larry only takes the Museum job so he can keep his apartment and visitation rights with his son.
It all pays off with a nice parallel story in the third film.
Over the course of the films, the producers and writers do what so many long-running franchise films have done, and I was reminded in many ways of both the Indiana Jones and James Bond Franchises.
That is, you’re working with basically the same group of heroes/supporting staff, so you need to change up the locations and villains with each outing. The Indiana Jones movies did it by moving through both time and space, as well as changing the McGuffin each time.
With James Bond, each film was set in whatever present day it was made in even though time was visibly passing with each new film. However, other than home base in England, the principal action of the films took place all over the world, with some of the installments covering multiple countries.
Night at the Museum doesn’t get quite that elaborate, but it does have a nice, logical progression. The first film takes place in New York City, the second in Washington, D.C., and the third in London, England, with a prologue set in 1938 in Egypt.
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian pretty much dives right into the action, with a number of our familiar characters/exhibits from the first film being crated up for delivery to the National Archives in D.C. under the opening credits. Meanwhile, we learn that Larry Daley (Stiller) left his museum job a few years earlier and did go on to be a successful entrepreneur, selling his own line of inventions via informercials and now living in a very upscale place and being a much better provider for his son.
For some reason, Daley drops by the museum that evening, only to learn from the curator, Dr. McPhee (Ricky Gervais) that by “Shipped to the National Archives,” it really means stowed away forever — and the Tablet of Ahkmenrah is not scheduled to make the trip, meaning that Daley’s friends from his museum days will never wake up again.
However, the night before they make the trip, they do wake up and bring along the tablet, which leads to an emergency phone call from the gang to Daley — they seem to be in a bit of a pickle.
Daley heads to D.C. only to find out that the National Archives are not open to the public and are also located deep below ground under the entire complex of 19 museums the Smithsonian comprised at the time. After very cleverly stealing a local guard (Jonah Hill)’s ID Daley coordinates with his son by phone to get down to the archives, only to quickly learn that cell phone reception only works about a floor and a half down.
From there, it charges into non-stop action as we learn that Ahkmenrah’s older (but snubbed) brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria) has learned of the existence of the tablet and wants it for himself. He’s been holding the New York exhibits captive.
Oh — Daley also meets up with Amelia Earhart (Amy Adams), who seems to take an immediate shine to him. It’s all good, silly fun from this point to the climax, with most of it held up by the fun dialogue and situations, but especially the performances.
Stiller, as with the first film, grounds everything, and American actor Owen Wilson and British thespian Steve Coogan continue to provide their “odd couple” pairing as two museum miniatures brought to life — the former an American cowboy (Jedediah) and the latter a Roman soldier (Octavius).
Normally, I can’t stand Owen Wilson, but his characterization works for me in all three films, and Coogan is a perfect foil for him — or vice versa. (It wouldn’t half surprise me if Disney+ didn’t spin off these two characters in some animated series, like “Miniatures of the Museum” or something like that.)
Rounding out the cast, Azaria plays his villainous pharaoh to perfection, wisely opting to use a voice that has strong hints of Boris Karloff — who, besides Frankenstein’s monster, was also famous for playing the Mummy — and who brings his usual single-minded focus to a role to make it perhaps greater than the sum of its lines.
He manages to be by turns menacing and ridiculous and every shade in-between, which is exactly the tone that a villain in these films needs to have.
It’s probably not a huge spoiler to say that Daley and his museum pals save the day and Daley learns another life lesson, leaving everything set up with the third film but, refreshingly, without any annoying, “Wait for the sequel!” flags hung in place. We do end with Daley going back to work at the museum, extending evening hours, and letting the exhibits interact with visitors — who, of course, assume that the exhibits are either actors or elaborate special effects, and business is good.
The series could have ended there and been perfectly satisfying, but the next film took everything a bit farther and a step further.
Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb starts out with no credits, just the aforementioned prologue set in 1938, which is when a joint U.S.-British-Egyptian expedition discovers the tomb of Merenkahre, Ahkmenrah’s father and original creator of the golden tablet. Despite warnings that disturbing the tomb means “the end will come,” the expedition proceeds to load everything up.
One of the members of that expedition is 12-year-old C.J. Fredericks. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve seen that name before, and somebody that age in 1988 could conceivably still be alive in 2014. (In fact, the actor cast in that grown-up role was born about the same time as the character and is still alive now, knock wood.)
Again, this film dives right into the action after the opening, as we learn that Daley has gone back to his job as night guard, and is overseeing the re-opening of the Hayden Planetarium, to also be hosted by the re-animated exhibits. Everything seems to be going well until it suddenly all starts to glitch out. Ahkmenrah explains to Daley that the tablet is starting to corrode, and the magic may end soon.
Daley runs across a photo of C.J. Fredericks while researching the tablet, and after a museum librarian mentions that C.J. worked there as a night guard for years, Daley puts it together. He tracks down Fredericks (Dick van Dyke) as well as his other former workmates (Mickey Rooney as Gus and Bill Cobbs as Reginald) in a rest home.
Denying everything at first, Daley uses the photo to get Fredericks to spill the beans. The ones with the answer are Ahkmenrah’s parents, but they’re at the British Museum. Daley convinces his boss, McPhee, to let him take Ahkmenrah and the tablet to the British Museum. McPhee reluctantly agrees.
Of course, Daley and his son have stowaways on the journey, and most of the core group wind up in the British Museum, night guard Tilly (Rebel Wilson) none-the-wiser. After dark, the tablet does its magic and brings the exhibits to life, and our gang has to find the exhibit with Ahkmenrah’s parents’ tomb in it in order to learn the secrets of the tablet in order to save it.
The first hitch in their plans comes when they are rescued from a triceratops skeleton by a wax statue of Sir Lancelot come to life, but he can’t just let them all waltz off. He’s a Knight of the Round Table, after all, and is sworn to protect those on quests.
While he seeks the holy grail, the others seek the secret of the tablet — and also the whereabouts of Jedediah and Octavius, who were sucked down an air vent in the floor. While Dexter the capuchin monkey heads off through the ducts to locate the miniatures, the rest head off to try to find the Egyptology section of the collection. Once there, they find Ahkmenrah’s parents, and his father explains that the only way to save the tablet is to charge it by full exposure to moonlight — it’s been inside for too long.
However, someone else has other plans, taking the tablet and running off. Will our heroes be able to stop them in time and save all of the living exhibits?
Given the franchise so far, the answer to that question is probably obvious, but the one nice bit about it is that rather than have it be a “Hero physically defeats villain” moment, it happens because the villain suddenly realizes what’s actually at stake for the hero in this whole thing. It isn’t the tablet but, definitely requires the tablet in order to happen.
Back home, Daley quits the museum again, this time having no idea what comes next, but he and his son have grown a lot closer. An epilogue three years later takes place when a touring exhibit from the British Museum drops in on the New York Museum and it’s party time, a light and fitting end to the entire series.
So — are they among the greatest film trilogies ever made? Not really. But will they keep you and your family entertained while introducing a bit of (mostly accurate although with tropes played for laughs) history? Most certainly.
The cast carries the show here, with Stiller’s Daley, Robin Williams’ Teddy Roosevelt, Rami Malek’s Ahkmenrah, and Wilson and Coogan’s Jedediah and Octavius carrying things.
Other stand-outs include Mizuo Peck as Sacagawea, Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun, and Ricky Gervais as Dr. McPhee, all three of whom appear in all three movies.
Dick van Dyke gets a lot to do in the first film, doesn’t appear in the second, and has a cameo in the third. Mickey Rooney has the same pattern of appearances, but the writers never knew what to do with his character, other than make him a belligerent little man who threatens to punch out Daley from the get-go and who never changes.
That part is kind of sad, because in the third film, which was shot two months before he died, Rooney has clearly had some physical disabilities, with his character in a wheelchair and the right side of his face kept mostly away from camera.
Robin Williams, meanwhile, took his own life in August of that year, so when the film was released in December 2014, it carried memorial notices for both actors. Still, that shouldn’t dampen any of the humor and adventure in the films. The three together and individually have some great lessons to teach, both of the historical variety and of the emotional variety.
Grab your family or friends, and have a little Museum marathon.