Nothing burns through ideas faster than a film industry: in a constant battle to find pre-existing intellectual property to adapt for cinema, Disney once hit upon the idea of turning their Disneyland rides into blockbuster movies. It was, all in all, a terrible idea. While Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) was a global hit and led to four sequels and counting, the same cannot be said of The Country Bears (2002), The Haunted Mansion (2003), or Tomorrowland (2015). This week their fifth attempt was released around the world: Jungle Cruise, an Amazon-set blend of action and fantasy inspired by the theme park ride of the same name.
In theory one can make a narrative feature from any and every source material, be it books, comics, videogames, magazine articles, action figures – even other narrative features. While theme parks seem as fair game as anything else, they do have an unavoidable sense of something cynically artificial. Hollywood is always chasing pre-existing brands – they make marketing so much easier – but it rarely seems more glaringly obvious than in films like these. Many fine artists clearly collaborated to make Jungle Cruise, yet in the end the film could not feel more like a corporate product. It seems pre-packaged, plasticky, and disposable.
Emily Blunt plays Dr Lily Houghton, an early 20th century scientist in an aggressively patriarchal world, travelling on a research mission up the Amazon River in search of a fabled life-changing flower. Escorting her up-river is pun-cracking skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), captain of his own dilapidated steamboat. Together they face a variety of threats including dangerous rapids, lethal predators, a mad German prince, and the undead.
One cannot simply adapt the Jungle Cruise ride, which was designed and built in 1955, because it is unavoidably America-centric and understandably out of date. Instead the film steals a bit of visual aesthetic and the idea of the steamboat ride – itself already a riff on the 1951 John Huston film The African Queen – and simply adds it to a blender filled with multiple pre-existing adventure movies. Pirates of the Caribbean is the largest influence, but any viewer with a passing familiarity with cinema is going to recognise threads pulled from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone, and particularly Stephen Sommers’ 1999 hit The Mummy. There is more than a hint of that film’s Rick and Evie in Frank and Lilly; there is even a stand-in for John Hannah’s hapless sidekick Jonathan, with comedian Jack Whitehall playing Lily’s incompetent younger brother McGregor.
The problem with churning one’s inspirations as if with a blender is that the end result will inevitably feel like a smoothie. Jungle Cruise feels painfully generic. The plot beats are over-familiar. Much of the story is predictable. Despite charismatic banter between Johnson and Blunt, every other element feels like it has been muddied about with everything else. Anything recognisable from other films simply do not feel as clever or exciting as they did when seen the first time. Audiences have seen this film before – and more than once. It is a refraction of pre-tested elements, all of which add to something watchable – even broadly enjoyable – but also forgettable. Disney does take another small step towards better representation in making McGregor gay, but it is glaringly obvious that the character is still one 20-second cut from being straight for the more homophobic markets.
There are good elements in the film. Johnson and Blunt do make for a winning combination, and some of the film’s more fantastical elements have a lot of promise. At the same time there is an overwhelming sense of ‘good enough’; the difference between Jungle Cruise and an excellent movie ultimately comes down to the boldness of execution. Disney did make a smart pick choosing Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) as director. He has a very effective handle on action, and has proven himself remarkably skilled at pulling big-screen excitement out of small-to-mid-budget films. In this case it would likely have benefitted Disney to scale the budget back: the CGI-heavy sheen and uncanny-valley backgrounds often work against Collet-Serra’s strengths.
Disney have pushed this as their next Pirates of the Caribbean, but have only managed to match the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Like that 2011 sequel it manages to entertain, keep one’s attention for two hours, and then amiable fall away. By all means enjoy yourself – but I would measure your expectations.