$362 million—that’s how much Walt Disney Studios reportedly spent on summer blockbuster hopeful “Jungle Cruise,” a supernatural-tinged adventure about a scientist and riverboat captain sailing down the Amazon in pursuit of a mystical item that will bring healing and restore zombie-like humans to life.
If it sounds like a highlight reel for Disney’s “Pirates” franchise, you’re spot on (more than one critic show at some length it’s exactly that). Whereas the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” along with “The Mummy” and most “Indiana Jones” entries — not the fourth one with aliens — hold up decades later as fast-paced popcorn flicks, this outing runs aground with CGI-heavy visuals and shallow character development.
Naturally, any big-budget adventure starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (“Fast and Furious” franchise) and Emily Blunt (“A Quiet Place”) will be watchable, even when driven by grating and uninspired feminist clichés. Both sit atop the summer box office for good reason, fueling “Jungle Cruise” with rapid-fire delivery and ad-libbed charisma that makes for a few laughs.
Fans nostalgic for Disneyland’s corny 65-year-old attraction upon which the film is based will find this at least diverting. Families with multiple kids older than age 10 may even consider in-home digital purchase via Disney Plus a nice deal, to save money at the theater. (This convenient option has led to a massive lawsuit over Disney’s recent on-demand film, “Black Widow” — hey, truth really is more interesting than fiction.)
For a better experience, a half-dozen other memorable blockbusters grounded in a similar premise give audiences more than a rushed theme park ride.
More Caricature Than Cruise
Setting up its premise in 1910’s England with a rollicking Spielberg-esque opening sequence full of stunts, “Jungle Cruise” hardly takes a breather for 40 minutes. Once in Brazil (recreated here on green screens in Georgia), viewers get three large-scale action scenes before we even know the players too well.
Therein lies the issue: it’s unclear what motivates the leads we’re supposed to care about. Captain Frank (Johnson) exudes confidence in his boat, humor, and abilities with nary a flaw to speak of. Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton is introduced as a scientist who — we’re reminded repeatedly — wears pants, shorthand for feisty and feminist. Comedian Jack Whitehall plays her brother McGregor as an effete dandy.
These broad generalities mean little to the actual story. Gradually, “Jungle Cruise” gives plot exposition about ancient legends and a quest for eternal life. Such themes can be mined for meaning. For instance, Dr. Lily says she wants to “cure all diseases” through this mythic plant they seek. What drives that compassion? It’s a thread left hanging.
Pity that the film’s interests lie elsewhere, as we’re quickly on to establishing villains. There’s a heavy-handed harbormaster (screen great Paul Giamatti truly wasted here) and a German U-boat inexplicably on the Amazon River. But the true threat lies with ill-defined zombie figures, introduced with dark imagery grotesque enough to give nightmares to young viewers.
Audiences who’ve seen a few similar movies will wonder why this so often feels fake. Unlike films that inspired it such as “The African Queen” and “Romancing the Stone,” easily two-thirds of “Jungle Cruise” relies heavily on computer-generated imagery. Sure, the lighting is better that way and CG animals pose exactly as the story demands. But an adventure film without natural environments, you may as well play a video game.
The film gives equally short shrift to an obligatory, muddled romance between the captain and scientist. After a few fleeting glances and holding hands in act two, Johnson decides to “sacrifice for his love” by act three.
It’s no more believable than a stadium-size pyramid labyrinth rising up from underwater, far beyond even impressive 15th-century Inca engineering. Sadly, producers clearly spent more time designing the latter than crafting three-dimensional characters.
Franchises Live Forever
By the end, a once-comic adventure takes itself quite seriously as it remakes a “Pirates” movie finale beat-for-beat. Really, they could’ve used a character like nerdy Riley in “National Treasure,” who cracks jokes at all the supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
Instead, it goes heavy yet has nothing to say on interesting themes raised about mortality, the power to heal, and eternal life. The big showdown reduces that long journey across a green-screen studio lot to whether our two leads will be separated. (Spoiler: they get to embrace.)
While “Jungle Cruise” may appear to be a bust as the basis for a franchise, never underestimate the Mouse. The film introduces the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, set to be the focus of an anticipated streaming series being developed by acclaimed genre TV producer Ronald D. Moore (“Battlestar: Galactica”). As to Johnson, he and director Jaume Collet-Serra will reteam for DC Comics’ “Black Adam” next year.
Granted, “Jungle Cruise” has a surprise or two along the way, and it’s charming how they recreate the classic ride in an early scene. This flick checks the necessary boxes, but it’s not sufficient for an adventure classic.