Back in the early 2000s, it was announced Disney was creating a live action film version of one of their most popular theme rides from Disneyland. The film titled was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Many in the industry thought it was a terrible idea and the film would flop when it premiered back in the summer of 2003. Well, much to the surprise of everyone, it was a global smash hit, landing major award nominations, and spawning sequels to make it one of the most successful franchises of all time. It was lightning in a bottle, something you just can’t replicate. Yet, a year later, it was announced that Disney was going to try to strike while the iron was hot and turn another ride into a movie. This time it would be Jungle Cruise. It didn’t get made and went through dozens of changes before the idea was brought to the doorsteps of the creators and stars of the 2021 version of this project. But, after development hell, years of delay, and a global pandemic, Jungle Cruise has finally set sail for the big screen, and it’s an absolute waste of time.
In London, in the early 1900s, our story follows Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), an intelligent, intrepid scientist in a male-only field who is looking for pieces of a puzzle that will lead her to the location of the Tree of Life, where she hopes to use the power of the tree to heal all and advance medicine for decades to come. Alongside her is her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall), who is forcefully put in the position of being her assistant on these excursions, and would much rather be sipping tea than dealing with legendary quests. After finding a key artifact, the two siblings make their way to the Amazon, where they look for a guide to get them to their destination. Upon their arrival, they meet Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a stubborn steamboat captain filled with tons of silly dad jokes who lures rich tourists on his ramshackle boat to endure the threat of native tribes and wild (animatronic) animals, all of whom are in on his grift. This brief interlude and introduction to Wolff is the only moment in the film that is truly derived from its theme park ride origins and does elicit genuine laughs and charm. While initially hesitant in taking the brother/sister duo on this adventure, the payout of the mission is just something he can’t pass up and the trio set their sails on the tree. Along the way, they are chased by a nefarious German prince (a deliciously fun Jesse Plemons) and a team of ancient killers lead by Édgar Ramírez.
It’s a pretty simple premise, but it’s one we’ve heard and seen before, only done much better. Jungle Cruise is a cross between Curse of the Black Pearl, The Mummy (1999), Romancing the Stone, with massive winks to the Indiana Jones series. And while you can feel the flavor of all of those movies cooking together, the results are a movie that is imitation and not inventive. It becomes a cheap rip-off that doesn’t create anything memorable on its own. The movies mentioned above have genius set pieces with heart-pounding action that leaves audiences wanting to watch them over and over again. They dared audiences to dream and excite them with engaging characters and thrilling action. They’re able to also blend any CGI and practical effect effortlessly to make you think any fantastic element is real. Jungle Cruise doesn’t do that, with its effects looking rather like something out of a video game. If you shoot a movie in the Amazon, it should look better than this and make you feel like you want to go into that world immediately, not deter you from it.
These problems lay on the shoulders of the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, who is completely out of his element and doesn’t seem like he was up for the task of making this an enjoyable experience. While he has worked within the action genre for some time, with films like Unknown, Non-Stop, The Shallows, he finds himself a bit adrift with an action movie of this scale. Scenes move back and forth at a pace that would make you fall asleep if it weren’t for the bombastic sound design and score by James Newton Howard (who really deserves better than this). The screenplay, written by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa, is convoluted and slow. Entire acts are taken step by step from other films, with some of the strangest, head scratching twists put to screen in recent memory. The film lands as a comedy of errors alright, in that nearly every decision behind the camera and on the page is a mistake.
The saving grace for this film should’ve been the cast, but the majority of them are phoning in their performances. Blunt and Johnson, two of the best performers we have working today, feel like they are in two separate movies. It’s almost as if they were reading two different scripts and told to make it work out while filming. This movie’s success is predicated on these two actors gelling together and finding the spark that’s necessary for a movie like this to work, and they just aren’t up for the task. You can tell something might be there at times, but again, the script doesn’t lend them the tools to succeed. Whitehall, a successful comedian but relative newcomer to film audiences, is wasted and cheaply used to make Disney one again try to pat themselves on the back for attempting to put a gay character in one of their movies.
This movie also has a real villain problem. Édgar Ramírez, a brilliant actor, doesn’t do anything here except look like a rejected version of one of the cursed pirates in The Curse of the Black Pearl or Davy Jones in Dead Man’s Chest just slightly different given the setting and the addition of snakes coming out of his body. He has a connection to Frank but none of it seems personal enough for you to invest in or understand any of his motivations. The great Paul Giamatti shows up for a couple of scenes in this movie and is so bad, you sit there and ask yourself why is he even doing this in the first place. Even Plemons, the only person who understands the kind of campiness needed to make a movie called Jungle Cruise, suffers from his shtick getting tired very quickly. A cool, calculated villain can add so many layers to your story, and give your protagonist something to fear and strive to defeat. Think back to that first Pirates film, and how arguably the second most memorable character in the film is Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbosa. Why is that? Because that creative team put time into every character on the screen to make you invest in motivation on screen. Instead, here, we never sense danger in any of the villain’s appearances on screen, making any confrontations between them and our heroes sadly uneventful.
Jungle Cruise is just a colossal disappointment. You never root for a movie like this not to work. Audiences cherish the action adventure genre, coming back to the well over and over again for similar films like this. But with Jungle Cruise, we’re given the unfortunate leftover scraps of a once better product and it’s presented to us as something new and shiny. This formula has worked before. Let’s just hope it can be fixed and we can get back to the wonder and magic that inspired the making of this project in the first place.
Walt Disney Pictures will be releasing Jungle Cruise in theaters and for Premium Access on Disney+ on July 30.
Photo: Frank Masi/Walt Disney