The joy of Disney’s “National Treasure” franchise lies in its precise balance of reverence and irreverence. For all the choreographed mayhem, cheeky ahistoricity, and gross mishandling of antiquities, the beloved 2004 film and its 2007 sequel are fundamentally in awe of history, respectful of legacy, and devoted to family.
Despite its sturdy plot mechanics, broad audience appeal and evergreen themes, the “National Treasure” franchise is lacking in currency. Fifteen years have passed since the last entry, a span of years in which the holiday tentpole has evolved, as has Nicolas Cage, who is now more drawn to auteurist grindhouse indies than Jerry Bruckheimer blockbusters. With the increasingly narrow odds of a film to complete a trilogy, the only way to save “National Treasure” from becoming a dusty relic itself was to detonate it and build something new from the ruins.
Creators Cormac and Marianne Wibberley are attempting to do just that with “National Treasure: Edge of History,” a 10-part legacy series on Disney+. The Wibberleys, who also scripted both “Treasure” films, have thoroughly modernized the show, in part by centering a Latina protagonist whose perspective on North American history adds resonance to the themes of heritage and cultural preservation. But as absorbing as that story could be, “Edge of History” struggles to tell it, in favor of advancing and expanding the franchise’s now-ancient mythology. It’s the rare reboot that could stand to be far less respectful of its source material.
Lisette Olivera assumes the mantle as Jess Valenzuela, a history buff and puzzle snob working odd jobs in New Orleans and mourning the recent death of her mother. She’s determined to one day crack codes for the FBI, but until then, her eidetic memory and savant-like puzzle solving skills are wasted on escape rooms. That all changes when a nostalgia piece of jewelry — all that remains of Jess’ relationship with her absentee father — ensnares Jess in an epic adventure to find a hidden Mesoamerican treasure and learn more about her equally treasure-obsessed father. (There’s presumably little hand-wringing about nepotism in the treasure hunting industry, as patrilineage appears to be the most reliable predictor of success in the field.)
Settling into Jess’ story is initially challenging because of just how much the Wibberleys have tweaked the show’s look and tone to fit its new young adult ensemble. Jess’ roommate Tasha (Zuri Reed) is a hacktivist in the making, while Tasha’s intermittent boyfriend Oren (Antonio Cipriano) is a street-smart sneakerhead. Ethan (Jordan Rodrigues) completes their escape room foursome, but sadly the clue that will help him escape the friend zone Jess has stranded him in by failing to reciprocate his all-consuming crush.
And in a detail sure to delight Disney’s dedicated brigade of review bombers, Jess and her gang are politically progressive and engaged with social justice. Jess is living in the U.S. under DACA protection, a precarious position further complicated by her developing passion for hunting treasure and planning absurd heists. While the Wibberleys’ dialogue is overpeppered with generic zoomer speak, the characters are accurate, if thinly drawn, idealistic young people. “Edge of History” comes courtesy of ABC Signature, which explains why it feels so much like a Freeform show, like what “Good Trouble” would be if the good trouble involved invisible-ink riddles and grappling hooks.
There’s a solid YA adventure show to be made about these characters, one that embraces the topicality of its premise with more nuance. But that show probably wouldn’t warrant the “National Treasure” banner. To earn that, “Edge of History” has to repeatedly foreground legacy characters that never manage to integrate fully into the show around them. Even Harvey Keitel, who reprises his role as Sadusky, kicks off the central mystery, then hustles back into the shadows. Standing in for Sadusky is his grandson Liam (Jake Austin Walker), who joins Jess’ quest as part of his own effort to connect with a family member he doesn’t understand. And as if that wasn’t enough, Justin Bartha returns as Riley Poole, whose infamy has granted him a successful podcasting career.
This is the way of the hybrid reboot-sequel, to crowd fresh faces and old friends into one story and see if they can harmonize. But Cage, Jon Voight, and Diane Kruger all opted out of “Edge of History,” and the more the remaining original characters are present, the more acute the absence of the principals becomes. The show’s two worlds collide early and often, and every time awkwardly, as if the reboot and the sequel are jockeying for attention. “Edge of History” is two halves of a show poorly welded together.
But the bigger problem is that, without the legacy characters, “Edge of History” would become too thin to survive. The 45-minute episodes are covered with fat, or what looks like fat when a show isn’t sure what it wants to be. Even the third of four episodes screened for critics, the first full-blown heist of the series, seems to crawl by despite the real-time urgency demanded of such a sequence. The pace is often slowed by Liam, an aspiring musician who longed for approval from his withholding grandfather. Great, but does he need to perform a full song once per episode? If the show was fully intentional about its youthful makeover, such a musical element might make sense. As it stands, the performances only serve to remind the audience they’re being served neither fish nor fowl.
It’s a shame so little of “Edge of History” works, because it’s wasting Catherine Zeta-Jones as Billie, a ruthless marauder who’d much sooner kill Jess and her friends than be second to arrive at the treasure spot. Zeta-Jones is the best thing about “Edge of History” because she, like Cage before her, is all too happy to push her performance to 11. Her snarling villainy veers so close to camp that it sounds at times like she’s workshopping a comedic impression of her own voice. “Edge of History” also feels like self-parody, but a far less fun variety born of a futile effort to look forward and backward simultaneously.
“National Treasure: Edge of History” premiered on Disney+ on Dec. 14 with two episodes.