Over the course of 8 years, 20th Century Fox released a trio of Shawn Levy-helmed Night at the Museum films. While none of the films ever reached blockbuster status, 2006’s Night at the Museum sits at #100 on the all-time North American box office list and the series introduced some memorable and loveable characters to audiences. Disney acquired the franchise in its merger with Fox and decided to return the franchise to its animated roots (the film series is based on a 1993 children’s picture book written by Milan Trenc) and while the short film smartly shifts the focus to a new main character, it ultimately falls short of capitalizing on any nostalgia the audience might have for the original.
One would assume that Disney’s decision to produce an animated follow-up was intended, at least in part, to rekindle some spark in a generation of people who found the magic in the franchise when it kicked off 16 years ago. Though it was never well-received critically, Night at the Museum has had a long shelf life and is the sort of film that audiences might find themselves sticking around to watch when they flip through the channels and find it on network television. Its first direct sequel, 2009’s Battle at the Smithsonian, did a little less business at the box office and dropped off in terms of audience engagement and by the time Secret of the Tomb debuted in 2014, audiences seemed to lose interest (indeed I did not recall a third film in the series had ever been made). In that sense, Disney had a big job to do in order to draw initiated fans back in and despite Kahmunrah Rises Again serving as essentially a highlight reel of everything fans loved about the live-action films, there’s too much missing to make fans of those films love this.
The biggest obstacle for Kahmunrah Rises Again comes from an at times jarring replacement of the talent behind the characters. None of the original cast returns to voice their animated counterparts and the results range from heartbreaking (seeing Teddy Roosevelt and not hearing Robin Williams‘ trademark gusto hurts), to head-scratching (it took me the majority of the film to realize Zachary Levi was voicing Larry) to downright infuriating (Steve Zahn trying to imitate Owen Wilson). The final straw in this discombobulating exercise was the absence of one of the world’s preeminent and prolific voice actors as the villain of the piece; Hank Azaria, whose performance as Kahmunra stands as one of the funniest of his career, was replaced by Joseph Kamal. It’s not that the new voice actors dropped the ball; it’s simply that for fans of the original films, their presence can’t overcome the absences they mask.
While Kahmunrah Rises Again’s reliance on the figures from the museum exhibits certainly takes familiar audience members out of the experience, the decision to shift to a new lead character does give the franchise a bit of hope. Now a high schooler, Night Guard Larry Daley’s son Nick, who has grown up aware of the magic of the museum, becomes the protagonist as he takes on the post of Night Guard for the Summer. While he mostly just stumbles through the same experiences his father has before, the new perspective does ultimately allow for a nice coming-of-age story for Nick.
Night at the Museum probably isn’t among the major franchises Disney had in mind when they acquired some heavy assets from Fox. It’s not Alien, Predator or the boatload of Marvel characters that they’ve already put to use; rather, it’s a franchise that was already mostly abandoned by fans, making an attempt at a revival a curious choice. This animated feature film, while having no major deficiencies of its own and telling a fine story, isn’t likely to change anyone’s mind about the franchise and fans of the live-action films might find themselves feeling more cynical than anything.
Night at the Museum: Kahmunrah Rises Again is now streaming on Disney Plus.