A Disney movie based on a theme-park attraction will always be a huge gamble. On one hand, the studio could end up with a massive blockbuster franchise like Pirates of the Caribbean; on the other, it could sink into the doldrums of The Haunted Mansion movie. Unlike most other legacy Disney IPs, its rides don’t necessarily have background lore, or characters people are invested in. They create experiences through atmospheric elements, but there’s little concrete narrative involved. So a Disney theme-park movie is mostly out to capture a feeling, and somehow transport that feeling into a story.
It’s been six years since Disney tried its hand at a new theme-park-related movie (and 2015’s Tomorrowland marked a huge loss for the company), but after more than 15 years of back-to-the-drawing-board development cycles, Jungle Cruise is splashing into action in theaters and on Disney Plus with Premier Access. Based on the ride that debuted in the original Disneyland park in 1955, one famously full of cheesy jokes (and outdated racist imagery), Jungle Cruise feels like a lot of previous period adventure movies, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While a fair share of moments lean too heavily on older movies, including many from Disney’s own canon, director Jaume Collet-Serra (of the ridiculously engaging shark movie The Shallows) puts just enough twists on old tropes to make it unique, while preserving some tried-and-true aspects of adventure stories. The movie hits some doldrums, but when the engine works, it’s smooth cruising.
[Ed. note: This review contains some slight spoilers for Jungle Cruise.]
Jungle Cruise starts in 1916, when adventurous botanist Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) sets out to find a magical plant rumored to be able to cure all illnesses. Along with her stuffy brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall), she treks to the Amazon and recruits the help of wisecracking, cynical steamboat captain Frank (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Hot on their tail is bombastic Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), an ambitious German aristocrat who seeks the tree for his own needs. There’s also a legend about the cursed conquistadors who originally sought out the tree, but it doesn’t become important until midway through.
The setup of an intrepid scholar, her posh brother, and the dashing rogue they reluctantly recruit may seem familiar, since the 1999 version of The Mummy did it first. But Jungle Cruise has its own spin on the characters. For one, Lily isn’t really a fish out of water in the adventuring life. She takes to the perilous trek easily. The emphasis on “strong female character” tropes in her scripting might seem annoyingly defiant, in a “not like other girls” way. For instance, because she decides to flout 1910s convention and wear practical pants during her jungle adventures, the male characters have words for her, which she just tunes out. (Frank actually nicknames her “Pants.”) Her outfit is actually one of the most pragmatic getups worn by a female character in a recent action-adventure movie, but of course, it still draws comments, because no matter what a woman wears, it has to be Part of the Narrative.
Thankfully, Blunt brings a lot of charm to the role, and she’s never drawn as turning her nose up at traditionally girly things. Instead, the emphasis is about her pursuing her goals of helping the world and seeking her own adventure. Frank, meanwhile, could have been written as a typical roguish adventurer, but the version on screen makes a ton of dad jokes and is generally goofier than the Indiana Joneses and Rick O’Connells of the world. He embodies the silly nature of the Disneyland ride — his first scene is basically full of theme-park zingers. (The fact that the writing team managed to fit in the beloved “backside of water” joke is honestly impressive.)
The characters are still all stock types more than well-rounded, dynamic people. They check off all the boxes on their expected stories: Will Frank learn to be more trusting? Yes. Will Frank and Lily banter and eventually fall for each other? Of course. Will McGregor get kidnapped? You know it! But why fix what isn’t broken? These are formulaic elements, but they’re still gratifying, and they come with just enough quirk and pizazz to keep the plot interesting.
Jungle Cruise is beholden not just to the antiquated tropes of archaeological adventure movies, but also the ride’s own problematic legacy. To their credit, the filmmakers do their best to subvert that legacy. The choice to have the coveted treasure be part of the natural world, instead of the ruins of an ancient civilization, already helps. But the best adaptation is that the indigenous people of the jungle are civilized, and they’re Frank’s buddies — they only attack the tourists because they have an agreement where he pays them to scare travelers for extra thrills. The leader of the tribe — the infamous Trader Sam, originally an outdated park character — is a woman in the movie. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time, and is more of an Easter egg than a woman of color with a story of her own, but at least the filmmakers are acknowledging the ride’s past and considering how to modernize their thinking.
The adventure does mix in supernatural elements that add an edge, but their mid-film introduction comes across as too little, too late. The legend of the cursed conquistadors is confirmed about halfway through the movie, as a ripoff of Davy Jones’ crew from the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They’re bound to a jungle instead of a ship, but with the same sort of body-horror modifications. While the one fellow with snakes rippling under his skin, ready to strike, is certainly a fright, the others are basically just reskins of the Flying Dutchman’s pirates. They also feel like obligatory scary creatures, only there because Collet-Serra feels like something spooky should be guarding the tree. Even when they get a smidgen of backstory, it’s not enough to make them anything but environmental obstacles to get in the way of the final fight.
As for the fight scenes themselves, while they all have something distinct about them, muddled visuals and pacing often detract from the enjoyment. An exciting chase through the port after Lily is abducted immediately turns into a submarine face-off, without much breathing time. It makes a sequence that should be thrilling drag on longer than its energy allows, which holds true for other action-heavy scenes as well. The final setpiece, which should be the biggest, most high-stakes fight of them all, is completely covered in shadows, and hard to see.
Still, Jungle Cruise packs in everything satisfying about an adventure movie, with some of its own twists. There are cryptic archaeological clues and spooky legends, along with a fair share of peril. Many of its elements feel lifted from other movies — maybe a necessity in a property with so few meaningful tropes of its own. But for the most part, it’s still an entertaining ride, instilling the goofy energy of the theme-park attraction into the adventure with the new spin it needed.
Jungle Cruise is available in theaters and on Disney Plus with Premier Access on July 30.