“The Tower of Terror,” “Tomorrowland,” “The Haunted Mansion,” “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Disneyland and Disney World are full of amusement park experiences that just beg for lush cinematic realizations. That’s what the top brass in the movie division seem to think, anyhow, and they’ve certainly been right at least once so far.
Last on the list I just rattled off is one of the most successful franchises in modern movie memory, and one that might have gone on forever had its star not become so toxic. Those other titles, however, never got anywhere close to the same level of pop-culture resonance. No doubt they had some basic technical flaws as films, but they also each suffered from the weightlessness of their source material. Only “Pirates of the Caribbean” managed to overcome it, but they had to create a once-in-a-generation character icon to do so. Will that kind of lightning ever strike again?
“Jungle Cruise,” out now in theaters and on Disney+, is based on a ride of the same name that opened in 1955 at Disneyland. The attraction is a mash-up of Southeast Asian, African and South American river imagery with some super awkward colonial tropes sprinkled over everything. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that several of its cultural elements have required updates over the years. The film version leans into the mostly benign cheesiness of the ride at first (there are several winking references to cardinal points in the ride’s progression) but soon reveals a darker, more supernatural plotline beneath the surface. There are conquistador ghosts and ancient curses and magical amulets and all of the standard adventure movie necessities.
“Jungle Cruise” stars Emily Blunt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. They are supported by a very strong cast that includes Paul Giamatti, Jesse Plemons, Jack Whitehall and many others. Everyone seems to be having a good time, especially during the goofy action sequences that draw such a direct link to that other, now legendary, property I mentioned earlier and wish I could stop mentioning. But it’s impossible to talk about “Jungle Cruise” without continuing to measure it against “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Emily Blunt is every bit the star Keira Knightly was, but Dwayne Johnson isn’t Johnny Depp. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though. Jack Sparrow’s quirks grew tiresome after a couple of films, while Johnson plays his conventional leading man, Frank, straight down the middle. This was a good choice for him, in my opinion. Less revolutionary, but less likely to wear thin. Johnson has proven himself a very sincere action hero over the years. Even though he usually just plays himself, he’s genuinely funny and seems perfectly at home within the narrow range of his character choices. The chemistry between he and Emily Blunt is not great, but they are both so likeable you forgive them for it. Their romance is never really the point anyways.
The plot and the pacing “Jungle Cruise” openly yearn for the spirited, swashbuckling charm of the pirate movies, but they don’t achieve it, at least not in any sustained way. Everything feels small and less consequential by comparison, from the backstory to the villains to the very boat itself. It’s fun to watch, I can’t deny it, but too derivative to hold my interest across multiple sequels. That said, if they do another one, I’ll try again.
If “Jungle Cruise” was hoping to carve out its own space as a lasting Disney franchise, it should have spent more of its generous resources on setting itself apart, rather than riding along so comfortably in the wake of its juggernaut predecessor.