Night at the Museum’s nod to Philip K Dick

This film really is family fun, with a bit about what it means to be human.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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When a motion picture is labelled a ‘family film’, this invariably means that it will be enjoyed by no one in the family. Children mostly tend rather to be drawn to movies designed for them – Frozen being the most recent and obvious example – while adults usually prefer films for grown-ups, with guns and sex and such stuff rather than safe, pallid domestic tales with cosy endings.

There are notable exceptions, to be sure, motion pictures that all the family do take pleasure from: The Sound of Music, the original Star Wars films, Toy Story and Shrek. One might also include here the Night At The Museum films.

Even if the series has never quite attained the colossal popularity of the aforementioned, the original 2006 outing, starring Ben Stiller as a night watchman at a New York natural history museum, where all the exhibits come to life at night, was a riotous and thoroughly enchanting affair. Such is the fable’s success and popularity that it has earned a third outing.

Night At The Museum: Secret of The Tomb, returns us to the familiar scenario, except that this time, the Ancient Egyptian tablet that grants life to the waxworks, statues and figurines is in fatal decay, diseased by a kind of weird ‘green rust’. This, in turn, imperils the nocturnal reawakenings of the exhibits. Theodore Roosevelt (played by the late Robin Williams) is now returning to solid wax, limb by limb. Dexter the Capuchin monkey is becoming psychotic. Genghis Khan is being rendered a cross-eyed, gibbering idiot with a voice like a girl.

In order to reverse this, Larry Daley (Stiller) leads a select band of his underlings to London’s British Museum, where a waxwork of the tablet’s creator, the pharoah Merenkahre, is on display. He must be ‘awoken’ to ascertain the cause of the tablet’s degeneration, and a means of counteracting it. But here they inadvertently create trouble for themselves, when they also arouse Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens), who, mistaking the tablet for the Holy Grail, purloins it. If it’s not restituted by daybreak, the exhibits may never wake up again.

Young children will love the pantomime, magical realism of the film and its dazzling special effects: the multi-dimensional fight, having ‘fallen’ into the etching, inside MC Escher’s ‘Relativity’ among Roosevelt, Lancelot and Daley is especially fantastic. Teenagers will also warm to the movie’s juvenile humour and innuendo: the monkey pissing-out the eruption of the model Vesuvius and the insinuation that the Roman centurion Octavius (Steve Coogan) is a closet homosexual.

Yet in a millenium in which the stories of Philip K Dick have become stock fodder for film producers, Night At The Museum 3 also addresses themes favoured by that author: what does it mean to be human, and what is reality?

By this instalment, the New York exhibits now accept that they are aren’t actually real people. But Sir Lancelot initially refuses to acknowledge that he’s merely an exhibit awoken by magic. This is even more ironic considering that he’s the representation of someone who didn’t actually exist in the first place.

His half-Quixotic, half-Pythonesque search for Guinivere by horseback leads him to a West End stage production of Camelot, where he storms the stage to confront King Arthur (Hugh Jackman) and Guinevere (Alice Eve). Jackman, stepping out of character and reverting to ‘himself’, attempts to convince Lancelot that the play isn’t real-life. Having failed to so, Jackman threatens him with his Wolverine impression.

All very postmodern and self-indulgent, you might say. Indeed, there are echoes of Last Action Hero (1993), another movie that brought reality and representation crashing into each other – and a film that likewise showcased too many big names for the sake of it.

But such philosophical meanderings on the big screen needn’t be hollow vainglory. Lancelot coming to terms with his own unreality, and the looming realisation among the protagonists that they may never awaken again, had a whiff of a Blade Runner replicant accepting its own artifice and mortality. Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams appearing here from beyond the grave make the film inadvertently all the more poignant.

Sure, the plot is plain as porridge and the dialogue unremarkable. It even lacks the strong characters of Night At The Museum 2: Night At The Smithsonian (2009), a movie rendered so memorable by Amy Adams as the delectably spirited Amelia Earhart and Hank Azaria as the deranged and narcissistic pharoah Kahmunrah. But this final outing can boast Ben Kingsley as that pharoah’s comparably out-of-touch father Merenkahre – ‘Oh I love the Jews. I own 40,000 of them. They’re so musical’ (Daley: ‘That’s not really the point’). And one Neanderthal waxwork, created in the image of Daley as a prank, in turn starts to believe that the night watchman is his father.

It’s a nice turn, and it works. Elsewhere, Steve Coogan and Ricky Gervais (Daley’s hapless boss) remind us how they are as good at acting as stand-up comedy (and certainly politics). Dick Van Dyke still dances. The Elgin Marbles come to life. What fun. It’s a decent, entertaining family film worthy of the name.

Patrick West is a columnist for spiked.

Watch the trailer for Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb:

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