Critics aren’t supposed to like the Night at the Museum movies. We’re supposed to see them out of duty and then write stuff like, “It’s OK for the kiddies, if you must.” I admit to turning a blind eye to their tendency to get excessively noisy or manic. I just…like…them. It’s a pleasure to see what Big Hollywood comes up with when writers, production designers, and special-effects people are turned loose and challenged to conjure new ideas for what dinosaur bones, Teddy Roosevelt statues, and Native American maidens modeled out of synthetic material are wont to do when they’re given the gift of life.
The third installment, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb may be the best, and even the generally wound-too-tight Ben Stiller — once again playing a bemused Museum of Natural History guard — is easy to tolerate. This time around, it turns out that the very thing that allows the museum’s creatures and historical peeps to get up and move around — a magical golden tablet from ancient Egypt — has gone out of whack. For some reason I’ve already forgotten, Stiller needs to go to the British Museum to get things straightened out. This is a good thing, because in London there are more and possibly cooler treasures just itching to stretch their legs: A blue faience hippo lumbers about happily, and a brass Chinese serpent-demon comes to life like a brilliant Ray Harryhausen nightmare.
The resuscitated human beings aren’t half bad either: Dan Stevens makes a dashing, if bumbling, Sir Lancelot. Stiller has a wonderful bit in which the Neanderthal who idolizes him — played by Stiller himself, wearing a prosthetic brow bone and a set of fabulously decrepit fake choppers — shadows his every move. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan once again make a superb squabbling cowboy-and-centurion duo. And even though, reprising his role as the Bull Moose, Robin Williams does all of his usual twinkling, this time there’s something deeply moving about it: Secret of the Tomb sends him rough-riding into that good night, and it’s not a bad way to go.