SPOILERS for the Night at the Museum films.
The entire St. Louis area is currently blanketed with snow and I am recovering from a cold that has stolen my voice and hidden it in a seashell somewhere, so on Friday afternoon, my mom, my sister, and I decided to watch Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, which is the third film in the series.
The Night at the Museum movies are short on plot, but long on entertaining character interactions. The first film is the strongest of the three, but my sister and I decided that the third film is much stronger and more fun than the second one because it features most of the main exhibits from the first film, while the second film ditched them for a bunch of new characters who weren’t as fun. In fact, I remember when my family rented Battle of the Smithsonsian back in 2010 and I was looking forward to seeing Teddy Roosevelt and Akhmenrah especially, and then they got left in New York. It made no sense to leave Akhmenrah back in New York for that one since his evil older brother Khamunrah was the villain of that film. (There apparently was an earlier version of the script where Akh went to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. What studio executive nixed that idea?) So while Secret of the Tomb has a flimsy plot, it still has great character moments, which is what this film franchise is best at.
What I want to talk about with this film franchise, and particularly with Secret of the Tomb, is a type of nontoxic masculinity that appears and is even encouraged throughout the series. It’s a type of masculinity that allows for healthy emotional attachments and expression, sympathy and empathy, and happy platonic friendships with other male characters. Interestingly, this performance of masculinity mainly stems from the Night Guard himself, Larry Daley. Before Larry became the night guard at the Museum of Natural History, none of the exhibits get along, poor Akhmenrah is left to lie screaming in his sarcophagus, and Attila the Hun terrorizes everyone. Larry, however, lets Akhmenrah out and confronts Attila in this iconic scene with Akh acting as a middle-man translator at first. In this confrontation, Larry appeals to Attila’s emotions and daddy issues to get through to him, turning what could have been a crazy fight into an adorable moment of armchair psychoanalysis. Attila proceeds to blubber his heart out in complete gibberish*. Then, during the third film, he’s much friendlier and more helpful, and he even has a man-crush on Regis Philbin. (Or as Attila says, “Reejou Philbou.”) To me, Attila’s new attitude feels like the result of character development that began in the first film rather than simply giving him a new, more cooperative personality.
*Fun fact: Attila and any other characters who speak “Hun” are speaking gibberish because no one knows what the Hunnic language sounded like.
That’s something I’ve noticed about the male characters in the Night at the Museum (especially the majority of the casts are overwhelmingly male): toxic masculine characters tend to either get punished or go through some sort of realization that allows them to improve themselves. And when I describe characters as “toxic masculine” in this context, I mean characters who attack other people, take things because they can, or refuse to acknowledge or deal with their emotions. One example of punishment for this kind of behavior is the capture of the old night guards, Cecil, Reginald, and Gus, after they attempt to steal the tablet and other museum artifacts. Their response to being fired due to budget cuts was to commit major thefts, and they seem to lack the empathy and affection that Larry has for the museum exhibits. For instance, they don’t care about depriving the museum exhibits of life when they steal the tablet; they just care about what it will do for them–it rejuvenates them, giving them the strength of younger men. Also, Cecil uses the money-carrier horses and their carriage to get away, even though that means absconding with another museum exhibit–that doesn’t matter because Cecil can get what he wants.
An example of the realization side of things would be Larry’s interactions with Jedidiah and Octavius, the miniature cowboy and Roman general, where he has to help them learn to get along in the first film. At first, all they want to do is fight, but once Larry mentions during his big speech to the exhibits at the film’s climax that they’re both leaders who want the best for their people, they realize that they make a pretty amazing team, and they forge an epic partnership.
Then, in the third film, we have Lancelot:
Lancelot is interesting because both his masculinity and his morality hinge on the fact that he suffers from a bad case of what I call Buzz Lightyear Syndrome. BLS is a condition suffered by fictional characters who think they are one thing, but are really another. (TV Tropes calls this trope Tomato in the Mirror, but I think my name for it is more straightfoward.) This often happens with characters who are ghosts or robots or, in the case of NATM and Toy Story, statues or toys that come to life. In Lancelot’s case, he believes that he really is Sir Lancelot from the Arthurian legends (instead of a most likely generic medieval exhibit that someone probably named/christened Lancelot) and that Arthur, Guinevere, and Camelot are all extremely real. More than that, he believes that he’s seeking the Holy Grail and he will eventually return to Camelot. As he talks with our heroes and expresses these beliefs, he exhibits some clearly toxic masculine behaviors. Firstly, when he talks about Camelot, he only exhibits emotional attachments to his designated love interest, Queen Guinevere, and King Arthur’s fool, Eric, whom he claims Larry looks like in this scene. By designating Larry as a fool and declaring him inherently funny, he’s essentially saying that Larry is beneath him and that he can’t take Larry seriously. By taking someone else down a peg, especially someone who seems to act as an authority figure, like Larry does with the exhibits, Lancelot is making an assertion of power.
Then, when Lancelot begins talking to Larry’s son Nick, he comes across as a goofy older brother type who encourages Nick to go after a girl who wrote her name on his arm. Then he talks about Guinevere, and he tells Nick to go after his destiny, which is being with this girl, Andrea, apparently. See, Nick’s arc in the film is being at odds with his dad about what he’s going to do with his life, and the only advice Lancelot has to offer is to chase after girls. (Thankfully, Nick is a smart kid who does not take this advice.) Women, to Lancelot are only there for romantic relationships.
And then we have Lancelot’s notion of a quest.
When Lancelot asks Larry what his quest is, Larry says that the quest is the tablet that Akhmenrah is holding. Lancelot looks over at Akhmenrah and the tablet, and he sizes Akh up, whispering to Larry that Akh is lean and would be easy to overpower. Larry has to tell him that the quest is not about taking the tablet from Akh, but from getting its power restored. Lancelot ends up taking the tablet anyway, believing it’s the Holy Grail, and he because he only understands a quest as a single-minded journey to take something. He gets confused when Larry switches course to try to help Jedidiah and Octavius, who’ve gotten lost, saying that a quest is “just one thing.” All of this suggests a selfish outlook based on taking and having objects…just because he can have them. Lancelot doesn’t realize until the end of the film when he sees the exhibits dying and breaking down, particularly Dexter the mischievous Capuchin monkey, and he says “The monkey is the quest.” Then he hands the tablet over. But before that, he has to have a hilariously rude awakening from his Buzz Lightyear Syndrome and get a bit of a nose job. In order to reform himself and become a more helpful and less toxic masculine person, he has to lose the illusion that he is a legendary knight.
What’s interesting to me about masculinity in the Night at the Museum films is that the characters who exhibit bad cases of toxic masculinity (Lancelot, Attila, Jedidiah, Octavius, and Cecil) are allowed to rehabilitate themselves and become less obsessed with dominating other people. If you go back and watch the first and third films, you’ll realize that all five of those characters have a need for domination that they need to let go of. Jedidiah wants his Wild West miniatures to dominate the Roman miniatures, and vice versa for Octavius. Cecil wants dominance over aging. Lancelot wants to possess and have dominance over the tablet since he believes it’s the Holy Grail, and he believes that bringing the Grail to Camelot will fulfill his quest (and by extension, his existence). And Attila wants to dominate…everyone and everything because he’s Attila the Hun. But once they let go of their need for dominance, these characters end up coexisting more peacefully with Larry and the other exhibits. That’s what I really like about this franchise (or at least the first and third installments)–it’s about personal growth. In the first film, Larry has to grow in terms of how he handles responsibility, and he helps the exhibits to grow and learn to get along and establish positive relationships with each other. So many franchises are based on one relatively unstable man stopping violent or destructive behavior by engaging in more violent and/or destructive behavior (James Bond, Batman, Iron Man). But Night at the Museum has arcs that are the opposite of that–they’re about a man becoming a positive, effective caretaker and his charges learning to grow as people. For all of the franchise’s wackiness, that’s a pretty powerful and wonderful message to convey, and that’s why I love these films.