Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
December 2014

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Closing time

Lazy, undercooked 'Secret of the Tomb' is hopefully the final installment of the 'Night at the Museum' franchise

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb
20th Century Fox
Director: Shawn Levy
Screenplay: David Guion and Michael Handelman, based on characters created by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant
Starring: Ben Stiller, Skyler Gisondo, Robin Williams, Dan Stevens, Rami Malek, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Rebel Wilson, Ricky Gervais and Ben Kingsley
Rated PG / 1 hour, 38 minutes
December 19, 2014
(out of four)

OK, let me just get this out of the way. It is the year 2014, and somehow, professional movies made by professional moviemakers are still introducing their London-set scenes with the use of The Clash's "London Calling" over the soundtrack. Why is this still happening. Tell me why.

Tell me, Shawn Levy, esteemed director of Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb. Tell me why you felt the need - no, the artistic impulse - to use that song over a helicopter shot of Big Ben when your story's action shifted to London late in the first act. And before you respond, let me just stop you right there and answer for you: It's because you've seen every other movie with a London scene do that, and you were too lazy to come up with anything else. That is the correct answer.

While we're at it, I'm sure you've got some other great ideas for future movie shooting locations. Like, I don't know, maybe if you're ever shooting in Manhattan, you'd give that old Sinatra song "New York, New York" a try - maybe even over a shot of Times Square. Or, even better, if your characters ever found themselves in Vegas, maybe you'd use Elvis' "Viva Las Vegas" against a shot of the Strip. Am I on the right track? You go get 'em, Shawn.

You, the viewer, may find moments in movies just as lazy as the London intro in Secret of the Tomb, but you will never find one lazier. But I digress. I only bring it up because it's a moment that exemplifies the laziness of the entirety of this movie, the supposed concluding chapter of the family fantasy series that began eight Christmases ago. This one, the franchise's low point, has no story to speak of - at least not one that couldn't have been resolved in five minutes rather than 98 - nor even much of an attempt to pretend there is one. Tomb relies on about an hour of disconnected, poorly executed effects-laden action sequences, followed by a meta third-act detour, and finally capped off by 20 minutes of phony sentiment* and a superfluous coda. That's the movie.

* In which the filmmakers actually try to convince us that the series was really about the affection between the characters all along. So bogus.

The conceit for the adventure this time around is that the ancient tablet that gives life to the museum's statues and artwork is rapidly degrading, and Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and Friends don't know what to do about it. The answers are in London at the British Museum, and so Larry heads overseas to find those answers and save his historical pals in the process. Along for the ride are Larry's 18-year-old son Nick (Syler Gisondo), as well as the usual reanimated suspects (Teddy Roosevelt, Jedediah, Octavius, Sacajawea, etc.), who smuggle their way in against Larry's wishes.

Just as they all arrive in London and sneak into the British Museum, they find themselves entangled in a series of fights, chases and adventures on their way to finding a rote answer to their problem that comes courtesy of none other than Sir Ben Kingsley in pharaoh garb.

I would be perfectly fine with the low-plot, episodic structure of the film if the disconnected episodes were actually any good, but for the most part they're just noisy, chaotic excuses to keep the action moving. There's one inspired sequence, when a trio of characters fighting over the magical tablet wind up inside M.C. Escher's Relativity, but that's as good as this movie gets. The rest is a lot of CGI window dressing, unfunny asides and cheap tenderness.

Of all the characters, new and old, only one has a narrative thread that can kind of support itself beyond a single scene or a single joke. That one involves Sir Lancelot (Dan Stevens*), who awakens for the first time insisting that he's in search of the Holy Grail and madly in love with his dear Guenevere, completely unaware that he is nothing more than a wax facsimile of the legendary character. Like the whole series in general, there's a distinct Toy Story vibe to this subplot, with Lancelot serving as this movie's Buzz Lightyear. But there's too little creativity spent on both the character and the movie, so even Lancelot gets short-changed.

* One thought that hit me as Stevens' dashing, arrogant Lancelot took the screen: If, hypothetically, they remade The Princess Bride right now, there is approximately a 97.5 percent chance Stevens would land the Cary Elwes role. Not that I'm recommending remaking The Princess Bride. I repeat: I do not in any way recommend remaking The Princess Bride.

As a viewer, it's hard to tell whether the film was just lazily conceived on a screenplay level, or if it was just chopped to pieces after the fact. But the final result feels half-baked at best, with barely enough ideas for a full feature film. (There are even multiple scenes in which dialogue seems to skip ahead, with characters openly talking about information they shouldn't even know yet. A kinder person than myself would call that economical writing; to me, it seems like a lot of patchwork was done in the editing room.)

Whether this is actually the final chapter of this financially successful series is anyone's guess. Levy and his writers try to make a distinctive case that this is the end, but I can't imagine they (or Stiller) would say no if the studio decided they really wanted one. Whatever happens, the biggest takeaway from the franchise as a whole - with respect to the fact that everyone involved may have just been harmlessly trying to entertain a very young audience - is a waste of a lot of screen talent. And for that matter, a waste of a pretty fun concept, which in someone else's hands may well have yielded a much stronger result than any of the three movies, but this disastrous finale in particular.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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