As a kid growing up in upstate New York, I took my share of trips to Manhattan to visit the American Museum of Natural History. Returning as an adult, I could certainly see why the place captures young imaginations. But there was no getting around the fact that some of the highlights I'd remembered — the big-game taxidermy displays, the glassed-in dioramas — felt awfully dusty, especially thematically.
For its first hour or so, the trilogy-capping "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb" elicits much the same feeling. Seeing Ben Stiller, the late Robin Williams, and their magically roused gang together again, this time in London, is initially all about indulgent, nostalgic smiles rather than new wows. But then comes the movie's exceptionally clever and fresh final act, which delivers genuine surprise along with many laughs.
We first catch up with former security guard Larry Daley (Stiller) back in New York, where he's overseeing a gala in his bumped-up, catch-all role as the museum's events coordinator and menagerie wrangler. When the enchanted Egyptian tablet that brings the place to life turns glitchy and wrecks the evening, Larry and pharaoh pal Ahkmenrah (Rami Malek) hotfoot it overseas to the British Museum to pry a solution from Ahkmenrah's father (more on him later). Teddy Roosevelt (Williams), mini-cowboy Jedidiah (Owen Wilson), mini-Roman Octavius (Steve Coogan), capuchin Dexter, and the rest tag along, as does Larry's restless teen son (quietly offbeat Skyler Gisondo).
Returning series director Shawn Levy tosses in new touches throughout, but they don't add up to anything that really kicks his latest fun-with-history mash-up into gear. Levy crafts an elaborate Indiana Jones-style prologue that's mostly superfluous, despite setting up a cameo by "Museum" franchise alumni. Stiller tackles a second role as a Neanderthal who dimly thinks he's found his dada. Rebel Wilson ("Pitch Perfect") plays loopy as Larry's counterpart on the British Museum's graveyard shift.
Then, belatedly, things start clicking. Just when you think that Dan Stevens, as a preening Sir Lancelot, has landed in another undercooked role post-"Downton Abbey," his heroic arc takes some kookily inspired turns. (That includes geographically — into the West End, to hit a stage revival of "Camelot.") Ben Kingsley, hardly the embodiment of selectivity, takes what could have been a groaner cameo as Ahkmenrah's pop and really owns it, right down to his amusingly blithe take on the Israelites. Some of the action strikingly, disorientingly detours into an M. C. Escher piece hanging in the museum's collection. And there's an obvious subtext to Williams's sign-off as Roosevelt that's genuinely touching. Assuming Wilson isn't being eyed as Stiller's replacement (or are we starting rumors?), it's satisfying to see this series ultimately shake off the relic dust and bow out with energy.
Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.