When Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was released in 2003, it proved the commercial viability of the feature-film-based-on-a-theme-park gambit first proposed by Disney’s former chairman and CEO Michael Eisner. (The made-for-TV Tower of Terror, Brian De Palma’s underrated space opera Mission to Mars and whatever the hell The Country Bears was, tested the waters but failed to connect on the same level.) But in the years since, particularly after Gore Verbinski’s gonzo first three Pirates movies, that viability has been challenged, both by the films that have actually been released (like the spectacular dud The Haunted Mansion, released just a few months after the first Pirates of the Caribbean) and countless projects that have entered the development cycle, only to never return to the offload area on the other side (including movies based on Space Mountain, Matterhorn, and a new Haunted Mansion by Guillermo del Toro). One of the movies-based-on-rides that was constantly being worked on while also suffering from a crippling lack of momentum, Jungle Cruise, originally earmarked for the live-action debut of Tim Allen and Tom Hanks, is finally seeing the light of day in a drastically different form. And while it doesn’t hit the high heights of the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, it comes close – and that’s good enough.
Instead of Woody and Buzz, this iteration of Jungle Cruise stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt. Harkening back to The African Queen, the 1951 adventure film that starred Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn and helped inspired the original version of the attraction, the emphasis on mismatched comedic tension. In this case, Blunt is Dr. Lily Houghton, a driven scientist looking to find the truth behind an ancient legend buried deep within the heart of the Amazon, while Johnson is Frank Wolff, a rascally steamboat captain who makes his meager living conning tourists with some banter that will be familiar to anyone who has ridden the iconic attraction. (Spoiler alert: there’s a “backside of water” moment.) Together, Frank and Lily embark on an adventure, along with her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) and Frank’s cuddly pet jaguar Proxima.
Along their journey, they run afoul of Frank’s riverboat rival Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti, slathering on a thick Italian accent like he’s auditioning for Luca); Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, single-handedly winning the movie), a German aristocrat who believes the legendary item Lily is after could be the key to Germany winning World War I; and a band of immortal conquistadors led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who have been searching for Lily’s legend for a considerably longer amount of time. As you can imagine, things get pretty hairy for Lily and Frank on their leisurely river cruise.
Jungle Cruise is clearly hedging closely to the Pirates of the Caribbean playboy – it’s led by charismatic movie stars (the male star playing a lovable scoundrel); has a charming period setting; incorporates a story that involves mythological, supernatural underpinnings and ancient curses; and features characters brought to terrifying life thanks to the wizardry of visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic. It’s all there. (Like Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney also has plans for subsequent Jungle Cruise adventures.) And, honestly, Jungle Cruise comes pretty damn close to achieving the giddy, all-day-in-a-theme-park heights of the first Pirates of the Caribbean. In short: it’s almost as good. Almost.
Most of the fun of Jungle Cruise comes from the chemistry between Johnson and Blunt. They are game sparring partners, trading barbs with aplomb. This kind of back-and-forth is incredibly difficult to build and maintain; the cinematic landscape is littered with movies that get the alchemy wrong. (Look no further than Johnson’s own exhausting Hobbs and Shaw.) Johnson and Blunt, however, get it right. Their ratatat dialogue is sharp and fast and continues well into the elaborately staged action set pieces (although one of my favorite bits of Johnson dialogue that can be heard in the trailer has been clumsily replaced for the final film). Even better – they know when to put the shtick aside for the more tender, introspective moments. And Whitehall, the latest in Disney’s long line of “exclusively gay characters,” gamely joins in the mix for additional pizzazz.
But it’s Plemons, as the proto-Nazi, submarine-piloting baddie, who singlehandedly steals the movie. Plemons is a singular talent whose mere presence in a movie can elevate whatever it is, and who frequently becomes the highlight of the movie (exhibit A: Game Night). Jungle Cruise is no different. He spits and screams in a German accent, bosses around his subordinates, and kills dudes just for getting wind of his fiendish plot. Also, the submarine he commands looks a lot like the type that used to carry tourists in Disneyland and Walt Disney World, adding an additional level of metatextual fun to Jungle Cruise. Not even some choppy editing and obvious ADR can sink Plemons’ brilliant performance.
(And, yes, there are plenty of shoutouts and throwbacks to the Jungle Cruise attraction and its increasingly labyrinthine mythology. Albert Falls gets a reference, as do many of the gags that have become a part of the Jungle Cruise experience. And, oddly enough, Trader Sam, the “headhunter” character currently being erased from the attraction, has a prominent role in the film, this time played by Veronica Falcón from HBO’s Perry Mason as a kind of warrior queen. I am sure there are plenty of references that I didn’t even catch on a single viewing. And there’s a gentlemen’s society at the beginning of the film that could be S.E.A., the Society of Adventurers and Explorers, a mythical group that connects several Disney theme parks worldwide. Tell me what I missed!)
Jungle Cruise is one of those classic “chase the doodad” movies, with a bunch of characters chasing after a magical object (or series of objects) each for their own reason. And occasionally, it can be a bit much. (In this way it is also very much like Pirates of the Caribbean.) In a recent profile of Johnson and Blunt, it was mentioned that the plot was streamlined during postproduction when test audiences responded more strongly to their relationship than the mystical goings-on. This occasionally results in some jarring editorial moments and a ton of dialogue recorded after-the-fact and inserted wherever the filmmakers could find a place for it. But these are minor quibbles, especially given the stylishness of Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction and the frequently unpredictable script (credited to Michael Green and the partnership of Glenn Ficarra and John Requa), which has some wonderfully subversive elements, like how offhandedly strong Blunt’s character is (Johnson refers to her as “pants”) and a streak of animal rights activism that courses just beneath the surface, reinforced by the filmmaking decision to have the animals be computer-animated.
Overall, Jungle Cruise is a rollicking E-ticket of a movie. The performances (particularly from Blunt, Johnson and Plemons), elevate the material and theme park enthusiasts will find plenty of fun Easter eggs to enjoy. In the years since Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney has searched, frantically and without much success, in finding the project that can translate theme park fun to the big screen with the same mixture of thrills, comedy, and cutting-edge visual effects. Well, they finally found it. As it turns out, it was right next door to Pirates of the Caribbean all along.