Blame Johnny Depp.
I mean, listen, feel free to blame the actor for any number of things, if you want. But specifically, in terms of riot-act reading, let’s go back to 2003, when Mr. Depp slapped on a head scarf, trotted out his best Keef Richards wobble and slur, and turned what felt like a Disney Hail-Mary I.P. cash-in into a cash cow. No one expected a movie based on an amusement park ride based on creaky, age-old seafaring stories to give birth to a popular franchise; no one expected a movie about 18th century pirates to show up in the early part of the 21st century, period. (What is this, the Watchmen universe?)
Depp is responsible for turning the Pirates of the Caribbean films into hits, even when the series slipped into diminishing-returns territory. More importantly, he helped to prove a Mouse House theorem: When it comes to licensing, exploiting and rebooting, why stop at your best-known characters? Find the right actor, and you can sell your park properties’ greatest hits as intellectual properties too. If you can hire a better-than-decent director and keep the pace frantic, all the better. The movies then direct customers back to the park, and the circle of l̶i̶f̶e̶ commerce continues. The question was not whether this was the beginning of a trend but what the next “title” would be and how soon we’d be E-ticketing to a theater near us.
The reprieve lasted longer than we thought, enough to lull us into a false sense of security. Maybe it’s unfair to blame the ghost of Jack Sparrow and the Pirates boom-bust of yore for Jungle Cruise. But dear Walt in the heavens, the shadow of that series looms large over this attempt to sell the Magic Kingdom’s vintage, colonialism-a-go-go boat ride as the next big endless-summer-movie thing. To be fair, so too does the specter of the Indiana Jones films, The African Queen, steampunk, old-school Werner Herzog, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, the entire previous filmography of the Rock, that book on Ponce de Leon you forgot to return to your library in fourth grade and every boys’ adventure ever written. Still: the wisecracking, trickster rascal? The hyper-capable and social-sexism-thwarting heroine? The mystical, supernatural villains, and their imperialistic, human bad-guy counterpart? The set pieces that update bits of ye olde derring-do, often digitally and occasionally successfully? You’ve seen this film. Only the hats, the source material’s location in the park and the size of the biceps have changed.
First, your lovable scamp of a skipper: His name is Frank Wolff, but feel free to call him Dwayne Johnson. This is a great example of what a movie star, a real one, does when you hire them: gives you their screen persona and molds it to fit the container without changing the essential recipe. It’s the one big difference between this and other Disney’s other big cinéma du amusement park entry, in that Depp injected everything an odd sense of unpredictability and Johnson gives us the reassuring feeling we’re watching a Dwayne Johnson movie. Except this time, it happens to be 1916, we’re deep in the Brazilian rain forests, and the star is smiling instead of seriously scowling. Wolff is a tour guide who runs his trusty boat up and down the Amazon for gullible tourists, which — yup — is distinguished by the captain’s facepalm-inspiring banter. Maybe you forgot for a nanosecond that the movie is based on the ride distinguished by a running commentary of puns ranging from bad to very bad to “make it stop, make it stop!!” Anyone who’s been to Disneyland in the past 50 years will recognize the jokes Johnson tells to his hostages (sorry, “customers”). The meta-gag is that even folks in 1916 thought these groaners were god-awful.
Meanwhile, in Merry Olde England, a young man named MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) is making a plea to ye olde stuffy historical organization to let him access an arrowhead recently found in the Amazon. This artifact, about to be tucked away in their archives, is allegedly the key to unlocking “the Tears of the Moon” — bright flowers found blossoming only on the mystical Tree of Life, and the obsession/downfall of Spanish conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez). He’s not the Houghton to keep an eye on, however: That would be MacGregor’s sister, Lily (Emily Blunt), the headstrong adventurer of the family. She’s keen to prove that the rumors surrounding the magical healing properties of this foliage are true, and thus cure all ills. Yet another party, Germany’s Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), would also like the arrowhead. There’s a world war going, you see. Having access to the tree’s bounty might give his nation the winning edge.
We get one rousing set piece involving Blunt and Plemons competing to liberate the arrowhead from its crate — a jumble of feints and moving parts that director Jaume Collet-Serra smooths out nicely; even if you didn’t know he’s logged time putting Liam Neeson through his Action Gramps paces, you see why he got the job — before everyone meets up in South America, and everything settles into a well-worn, familiar Jungle Adventure 101 groove. It turns out that Blunt’s tart apple crisp of a comic performance pairs nicely with Johnson’s beefcake served with a side of ham. The actress, especially, seems to thrive in playing the Hepburn to Johnson’s buffed-up Bogart. (When you watch her spring into action, and see how well the movie plays to her vulnerability and her fearlessness, you remember that this is the filmmaker who also gave us Blake Lively’s alpha-female-in-peril in The Shallows.) Blunt’s already proven to be a great physical screen performer as well as an expressive one, versatile enough to go deep or stay breezy, and even when she leans heavily on righteous indignation, there’s a verve she brings to all of this. It rubs off on her screen partner, too. She calls him “Skippy.” He calls her “Pants.” (Because she wears pants, and is also a lady.) They can almost jointly convince you this is a cruise worth taking. Almost.
Other than that, well…Plemons’ evil Saxon may worship the Kaiser instead of the Fürher, but he’s a screen Nazi by any other name, and the mustache-twirling giddiness he brings to this stock villain soon dissipates quicker than a cow leg in a piranha pool. Paul Giamatti drops by with a that’s-ah-spicy-meatball accent, a gold tooth and a vibe that scream “my summer house needs renovating, too.” One character’s interest in then-verboten alternative lifestyles doubles as both sympathetic representation and gay-panic-driven punchline, leaving you with a chicken v. egg dilemma over what came first in script rewrites. And the ride’s legacy of blithe exoticism butting up against Tarzan-grade stereotypes — to quote a bit player here, “that booga-booga nonsense” — gets dealt with in a way that suggests a box has been summarily ticked off a previous-grievances list. It wants to have your cannibal-natives cake and critique it too, at least in theory.
There are a few elements in Jungle Cruise that would constitute being labeled as spoilers, but the fact that the movie ends ready and revved up for a sequel is not one of them. Disney would very much like lightning to strike twice, and you can feel moments here — notably when Aguirre and some conquistador comrades return in a, shall we say, more “natural” postmortem state — where they’re purposefully nudging you: “Hey, remember how much you loved those early Pirates movies? So why not give this a try as well?” The ride they’re really asking you to go on, however, isn’t a reprise of their hokey upriver excursion. It’s something closer to an amusement-park attraction named Generic Blockbuster Cruise, where you slowly glide past a bunch of prefab set-ups — over there you’ll see some thrills, look out on your right for some spills and chills — and the whole thing moves inexorably forward on a track, while a skipper cracks the same corny jokes. It’s a decent enough way to kill time once if the lines are short. You won’t be particularly be rushing to jump back on the ride again.