Why Bother Doing Another ‘National Treasure’ Without Nicolas Cage?

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Getty
Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminero / The Daily Beast / Getty
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National Treasure isn’t a film about some random guy stealing the Declaration of Independence—it’s about Nicolas Cage stealing it. If you remove the inimitable Cage from the equation, you negate the entire point of the Indiana Jones-lite franchise. That, unfortunately, is precisely the tack taken by National Treasure: Edge of History, the latest revival of a popular movie series as a lamer Disney+ affair, which takes its predecessors’ historical treasure-hunting adventure and gives it an insufferable tween spin.

Cage’s Benjamin Franklin Gates and his signature feat are mentioned multiple times in National Treasure: Edge of History (December 14), but this saga’s prime focus is Jess Valenzuela (Lisette Alexis), a young Mexican-American girl who works at a storage company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and is just about the world’s most talented riddle-solver. Jess is also an undocumented DACA immigrant whose parents are both dead.

In a prologue, we learn that her dad perished while on the trail of treasure, albeit not before bequeathing her the symbol-marked necklace that she wears to this day. Even before that, an opening expository passage recounts the Spanish conquistadors’ 1519 invasion of Mexico, and the emergence of an underground network of indigenous women who secreted away Montezuma’s riches, all of which could be found via a map that was split up into three relics that were given to the Incas, Mayans, and Aztecs.

This is all a lot of convoluted fake-history mumbo-jumbo that winds up having to do with Elvis, and it’s made more amusing by the fact that the relics in question resemble the types of mechanized puzzle boxes favored by Pinhead. Nonetheless, this conspiracy becomes the guiding preoccupation of Jess when she’s tasked by her boss to figure out who owns an abandoned storage unit.

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She winds up on the doorstep of Peter Sadusky (Harvey Keitel), the former FBI agent from both National Treasure films. Peter is now a dementia-addled crackpot, or at least that’s what everyone says. As soon as she meets him, though, Jess proves her worth as a fearsomely clever girl and thus receives an envelope—originally intended for Peter’s estranged grandson Liam (Jake Austin Walker)—that she deduces is a clue involving the Freemasons and the aforementioned Mexican treasure.

Jess can’t resist looking into this mystery, and she’s aided in her efforts by her roommate Tasha (Zuri Reed), best friend Ethan (Jordan Rodrigues) and Tasha’s ex, Oren (Antonio Cipriano). Spunky, wisecracking ,and mugging for the camera with reckless abandon, these kids would be right at home on a typical Disney Channel made-for-TV movie.

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Oren is a particularly egregious clown, lowlighted by him moaning and rolling his eyes in ecstasy over the fact that someone bought him some pizza. Tasha, however, takes the title of most unbearable series participant, sassily spouting off about “typical patriarchy,” “gender stereotypes,” and “binary systems of oppression,” like a human buzzword generator. Every time such stuff is uttered, it’s as if an 11-year-old’s Twitter feed threw up on the scripts.

National Treasure: Edge of History wants to be “relevant” by making Jess’ immigration status a pressing plot point, since the threat of deportation is a constant concern, but that gesture merely feels like superficial pandering. Then again, most everything about these proceedings comes off as cheap and mechanical.

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Executive-producer and acclaimed feature director Mira Nair helms the premiere with a surprising lack of personality, coating the action in glossy bright colors that go hand-in-hand with the overly busy set design, including with regards to Peter’s artifact-decorated office. As imagined by creators Cormac and Marianne Wibberley, the series is aesthetically flat and narratively corny, and its cutesiness ramps up once Jess meets Liam, an aspiring guitarist whose father also died in search of the Mexican bounty.

Jess and company’s quest is complicated by an evil treasure-hunter named Billie who’s embodied by Catherine Zeta-Jones in a blonde, straight-haired wig that’s the height of ridiculousness. Billie is a stock villain who sneers and threatens on cue, and she turns out to be Zeta-Jones’ ticket to a second consecutive middling streaming project, following Netflix’s Wednesday.

For the most part, though, she’s a peripheral presence, ceding the spotlight to the blandly determined Jess and woodenly hunky Liam, whose paths eventually cross with Riley Poole (Justin Bartha), the National Treasure movies’ grating comedic-relief sidekick. Now a famous podcaster, Riley is around to provide some nostalgic flavor via his usual unfunny schtick, as well as to validate Jess as a worthy protagonist by telling her (and the audience) that she reminds him of Ben.

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Jess solves puzzles with borderline-superhuman intuitiveness, and her intellectual acuity negates most of National Treasure: Edge of History’s suspense. The series’ conundrums are wildly intricate and totally absurd, and without Cage selling them with gonzo enthusiasm, they resonate as ignorable flimflam. It doesn’t matter precisely how Jess and her friends get from point A to B, because it rarely makes sense and it’s inconsequential to their overriding mission.

That mission, it’s suggested will be made trickier by an FBI agent (Lyndon Smith) on the case, as well as Salazar, an imprisoned baddie who may have been responsible for the murder of Jess’ dad. Salazar is only seen in shadows during the show’s first four episodes (which were all that were provided to press), but he’ll undoubtedly emerge as another obstacle for Jess to overcome by using her formidable brainpower.

There’s an easy explanation for why National Treasure: Edge of History is cartoonishly exaggerated and clichéd: It’s been designed for pre-teens. Yet that doesn’t make its broad performances and faux-clever storytelling any more excusable or bearable. YA fare need not, by definition, be this clunky, just as IP exploitation doesn’t have to play this unimaginatively—a shortcoming that extends to its meaningless subtitle.

Disney, however, has gotten this film-to-TV reboot playbook down pat, and it adheres to it zealously, bringing together new and legacy characters for an undertaking that’s a pale imitation of its (only mediocre to begin with) ancestors. So dreary is this endeavor that it’s almost a mercy that the estimable Keitel bails shortly after arriving—and that Cage, shrewdly, stays away altogether.

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