Shawn Levy’s third Night at the Museum film immediately announces its most disconcerting element— its retrograde Orientalist bent—by opening with a 1934 archaeological excavation in Egypt, which, as is the case with most adventure-film flashback prologues of this kind, establishes a cursed object. In this case, the object in question is the Tablet of Ahkmenrah, which, in the present day, is the source of the magic that brings all the exhibits of the Museum of Natural History to life at night. Though the tablet, and thus this tired mystical Egyptian narrative, has always been present in this series, this particular sequence compounds the inherent racism by depicting Egyptian men, in a rabid craze, attacking the white boy who finds the tablet before the boy’s father saves his son. Seeing the events that bring the tablet to the museum turns the artifact’s history from simply an affront to Egypt’s culture to an offensive representation of Egyptians. Then there’s the film proper, in which Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) now uses the magic of the museum to present a night program for guests, passing off the brought-to-life exhibits as special effects. Things go horribly wrong one night when the tablet begins to corrode, leading the exhibits to malfunction, and to the sacking of the museum curator (Ricky Gervais). In order to save both the museum and his boss’s job, Larry travels to the British Museum with the magical tablet on a mission to learn its secrets from Ahkmenrah’s parents and save the magic. Joining Larry on his adventure are Akmenrah (Rami Malek), Theodore Roosevelt (the late Robin Williams), Attila the Hun (Patrick Gallagher), Sacagawea (Mizuo Peck), the miniatures Jedediah and Octavius (Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan), Dexter the monkey, and Larry’s son Nicky (Skyler Gisondo), whose reluctance to go to college provides the film’s main subplot.
It’s a shame that so much of the film is focused on lowest-common-denominator jokes with half-hearted gestures towards history education
Of that motley crew, only Theodore Roosevelt, the monkey and the miniatures are given much to do, as the non-white museum exhibits stick to the sidelines and serve as punchlines to half-baked jokes (Attila the Hun, for instance, is teased for not speaking English, even if there is no reason at all, historical or otherwise, to suggest he would actually know the language). Larry and Teddy get to have an extended fight with Lancelot (Dan Stevens) inside an MC Escher painting, while Sacagawea’s big moment is merely pointing out a hoof print on the ground while tracking an escaped foe. Everything involving non-white characters plays exclusively on stereotypes, while white characters are privileged to battle and defeat statues of Chinese snake demons. Though to be fair, those few action scenes are pretty exciting. There is genuine creativity to, say, seeing Lancelot fencing a Triceratops, spinning away from one horn and parrying another, or slashing at stone snake heads. It’s a shame, then, that so much of the film’s 98-minute runtime is focused on lowest-common-denominator jokes with half-hearted gestures towards history education (case in point: Dexter the monkey puts out the volcano of a miniature Vesuvius with his urine). Towards the end of the film, characters make insipid remarks about the importance of museums as places of education, ostensibly positioning Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb as a sort of edutainment. But the only possible history “lessons” anyone would take away from this misbegotten entertainment is that Egyptians are magical and Attila the Hun can’t pronounce Regis Philbin’s name correctly. This risible attempt to tack some importance onto 98 minutes of pee jokes and age-old imperialist comedy is perhaps the only funny thing here.