Building Entertainment: The Films of the Walt Disney Studio. National Treasure

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: National Treasure

Year: 2004

Budget: $100 million

Box office: $347.5 million

Plot: Benjamin Franklin Gates is an American historian, cryptologist, and treasure hunter. As a child, his grandfather, John Adams Gates, told him of a story that Charles Carroll of Carrollton passed on a secret to their ancestor in 1832 of a fabled treasure taken from ancient empires throughout history that was discovered by the Knights Templar and later protected by the Freemasons. The treasure would eventually be hidden in America by the Founding Fathers. The clue leading to the treasure is the phrase “The secret lies with Charlotte.” While Ben is convinced by the story, his skeptical father, Patrick, dismisses it as nonsense.

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Thirty years later, Ben leads an expedition with Ian Howe and his friend, Riley Poole, a computer expert, to find the Charlotte, a ship lost in the Arctic, which holds the first clue to finding the national treasure. After many efforts, they find a meerschaum pipe, which has a clue in the form of a riddle, implying that the next clue is on the Declaration of Independence. When Ian suggests they steal it, Ben opposes, causing a fight to ensue, resulting in a massive fire fueled by gunpowder, and the group split in two. Ian and his men escape the ship while Ben and Riley take cover just before the ship explodes.

Ben and Riley return to Washington, DC, and report the potential theft of the Declaration to Homeland Security, the FBI, and Dr. Abigail Chase of the National Archives, but all dismiss their claim. Ben decides to steal the document himself from the Archives’ preservation room during a gala event. Obtaining Abigail’s fingerprints, Ben successfully obtains the Declaration but is spotted by Ian’s group just as they break in to steal it. Ben tries to leave via the gift shop but has to buy the Declaration when the clerk mistakes it for a souvenir copy; having not enough cash in hand at the time, Ben pays for it with a credit card. Abigail, suspecting something is astray, pursues Ben and takes back the document. Ian kidnaps her, but Ben and Riley rescue Abigail, tricking Ian by leaving behind a souvenir copy of the Declaration. FBI Agent Sadusky begins tracking Ben down, using Ben’s credit card information.

Unable to return home, the trio go to Patrick’s house to lie low. Patrick tries to convince Ben that the treasure is a myth, which Ben dismisses. The trio then studies the Declaration and discover an Ottendorf cipher written in invisible ink. With the help of lemon juice and some heat from a hair dryer, they find out that the hidden cypher refers to the Silence Dogood letters written by Benjamin Franklin, which Patrick formerly owned but has since donated to the Franklin Institute. Using a schoolboy to acquire the letters’ key words, Ben, Riley, and Abigail discover a message pointing to the bell tower of Independence Hall, where the Liberty Bell once stood. Unfortunately, Ian and his men manage to also find and question the schoolboy and pursue the new lead. Following the point on the opposite wall of the bell house where the shadow cast at exactly 2:22 p.m. on the same day, Ben finds a hidden cache containing a pair of glasses with multiple colored lenses invented by Benjamin Franklin, which, when used to read the back of the Declaration, reveals a clue pointing to the symbol of Trinity Church which is located on Wall Street and Broadway in New York City.

The group is chased by Ian’s associates. Ben is arrested by the FBI, and Abigail and Riley lose the Declaration to Ian. However, Abigail convinces Ian to help them rescue Ben in exchange for the next clue. Ian agrees, arranging a meeting at the USS Intrepid, where they help Ben evade the FBI.

Ian returns the Declaration and asks for the next clue, but when Ben remains coy, Ian reveals he has kidnapped Patrick as a hostage. They go inside Trinity Church, where they sit and study the back of the Declaration of Independence by using the different lenses resulting in the discovery of an underground passage known as Parkington Lane, but it appears to lead to a dead end, lit by a lone lantern. Patrick claims it is referencing the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, pointing Ian to the Old North Church in Boston. Ian leaves Gates trapped in the chamber to die, heading for Boston. Patrick reveals the clue was a fake and enters the treasure room using the clues they gathered on their journey, but it appears looted. After a heart to heart between Ben and Patrick, they find a notch into which the meerschaum pipe fits into, and they open a large chamber containing the treasure and escape through a back exit. Ben contacts Sadusky and figures him to be a modern Freemason by the signet on his ring, surrendering the Declaration and the treasure’s location in exchange for clemency. Ian and his men are later arrested when Ben tips the FBI off.

Later, Ben and Abigail have started a relationship. Meanwhile, Riley is upset that Ben turned down the 10% finder’s fee for the treasure but accepted a much smaller amount of only 1%, which still has netted them all significant wealth. As Riley drives away in a Ferrari from Ben, and Abigail’s newly bought house, Abigail gives Ben a treasure map. When Ben asks her where the map leads, Abigail suggestively replies, “You’ll figure it out.”

Background: National Treasure was filmed primarily in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Utah. Most scenes were filmed on location, with the exceptions of the Independence Hall scene, which was filmed at the replica of Independence Hall at Knott’s Berry Farm, and the Arctic scene, which was filmed in Utah.

Music: The film’s score was composed by Trevor Rabin

Cast: Christopher Plummer returns as John Adams Gates:

Nicolas Cage 1 as Benjamin Franklin Gates. 2 Cage starred in a number of films such as Rumble Fish, Valley Girl, Racing with the Moon, Birdy, Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Vampire’s Kiss, Wild at Heart, Fire Birds, Honeymoon in Vegas, and Red Rock West. He received an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild Award for Leaving Las Vegas. He continued with The Rock, Face/Off, Con Air, Snake Eyes, City of Angels, Adaptation, Shadow of the Vampire, The Life of David Gale, Lord of War, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Kick-Ass, Ghost Rider, Knowing, The Croods, The Frozen Ground, Joe, Dog Eat Dog, Mom and Dad, Mandy, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, and also narrated the documentary Love, Antosha. Sean Bean 3 as Ian Howe. He first found mainstream success for his portrayal of Richard Sharpe in the ITV series Sharpe. Film roles include Patriot Games, 4 GoldenEye, 5 Ronin, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, 6 Equilibrium, 7 Odysseus in Troy, 8 Flightplan, North Country, The Island, 9 Silent Hill, Black Death, 10 Jupiter Ascending and The Martian. Other TV roles include Game of Thrones 11 and Henry VIII. 12 As a voice actor, Bean has been featured in the video games The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, and the drama The Canterbury Tales.

Diane Kruger 13 as Dr. Abigail Chase. Kruger made her film debut in The Piano Player. She has played Helen in Troy, Bridget von Hammersmark in Inglourious Basterds, and Gina in Unknown. She also starred as Detective Sonya Cross in The Bridge. Justin Bartha as Riley Poole. He appeated as Doug Billings in The Hangover trilogy, and David Sawyer in The New Normal. He starred as Colin Morrello in the The Good Fight.

Jon Voight as Patrick Henry Gates. He came to prominence in the late 1960s with his Oscar-nominated performance as Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy. He appeared in Deliverance, Coming Home, 14 The Champ, Runaway Train, Heat, Mission: Impossible, Enemy of the State, The Rainmaker, Ali, Uprising, Pearl Harbor, and Ray Donovan. Harvey Keitel as Agent Peter Sadusky. He has starred in films such as Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Duellists, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bugsy, Thelma & Louise, Reservoir Dogs, Bad Lieutenant, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, From Dusk till Dawn, Cop Land, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Youth, and The Irishman.

Critical Reception: Roger Ebert gave the film 2/4 stars, calling it “so silly that the Monty Python version could use the same screenplay, line for line.” Academic David Bordwell has expressed a liking for the film, placing it in the tradition of 1950s Disney children’s adventure movies, and using it as the basis for an essay on scene transitions in classical Hollywood cinema.

Sequel: A sequel: National Treasure: Book of Secrets was released on December 21, 2007. Ed Harris, Bruce Greenwood, and Helen Mirren join the cast.

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In January 2020, it was announced that Chris Bremner, the writer of Bad Boys for Life, would write a new script for a third film

My take: Part history lesson, part heist film. It’s goofy but fun, and mostly family friendly. I also have an ancestor buried at Trinity Church, so that was fun.

Available on Disney +?: Not until April 30th. The sequel is available now.

Next Week: Sky High