I remember when I first heard that Disney was going to make a movie based on a ride and thinking it was as idiotic an idea as bizarre money grabs could get. The notion hasn’t always worked out perfectly, but the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has certainly shown that a truly fun time can be had with the theory, even if “based on” proves to have very little meaning.
When I heard we were going down this road again I was again skeptical, especially considering the fact that I couldn’t put together how a film could be based on this particular ride to any degree beyond being based simply on the two words themselves.
Jungle Cruise does include a cute homage of sorts to its namesake ride, though Dwayne Johnson doesn’t quite live up to the patter and lame jokes familiar to those who have had to sit through it on the actual ride, but there the “based on” falls apart in much the way that nothing about the Pirates of the Caribbean ride suggests curses and undead pirate hordes.
The adventure begins when Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) gets her brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to distract a London adventuring society long enough for her to get her hands on an artifact that she believes is the key to finding a mythical, healing tree in the Amazon. The hijinx involved in this interlude sets the stage for much of the action in the film, itself a throwback to more “wild and wacky” days of “high adventure” from the ’40s and ’50s. Wheeling about on a ladder as you try to manage your escape leaves little room for high stakes. The existence of Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who casually slaughters everyone in the room, throws a bit of confusion into this mix, but it all manages to somehow feel like any actual danger is happening where you can’t see it while you’re on a ride.
Having secured the artifact, Lily sets off with MacGregor to hire a boat and sail up the Amazon. Frank Wolff (Johnson), hires himself out to give jungle cruises, mainly by way of taking advantage of the naive Brits wealthy enough to wander the world. Through standard-fare shenanigans, Frank and Lily eventually come to terms and set off. MacGregor, just to keep things off-balance, shows up with dozens of trunks filled with clothes for every occasion, while Lily seems not to have brought anything but maps.
As many dangers as the jungle may hold, whether that’s animals or headhunters, the trip hardly begins before Prince Joachim shows up in an insanely improbable submarine (I imagine because Nazis are simply the epitome of submarine enthusiasts and logistics be damned). As we finally get on board, following zip line chases, torpedos, and fights with jaguars, we know we are squarely in an adventure that is at best a tribute to 70-year-old films, and at worst a live-action cartoon.
It’s undeniably fun, and so long as “zany” isn’t a four-letter word, the rapids and chases are worth the laboriously odd story. But, for all that Blunt and Johnson are as “screen friendly” as anyone working today, there’s a bit of magic missing. Oddly, magic will take center stage as things progress, but the movie will become all the less mesmerizing as more magical things appear. As we move toward the midpoint of the film, Prince Joachim seems to know things (and is able to maneuver events) because it says so in the script, and a fair bit of the action works on some premise that we can’t get a PG-13 rating unless we off a few people. Both are strange choices, but the movie is never better than when it feels like it’s laying the groundwork for the “stage” that’s going to pop up next to the ride at Disneyworld.
When it approaches “swashbuckling” and you imagine quicksand is going to come into play at any moment, the film is a treat that takes you through old school, popcorn adventure and will make you wish some broader genre could come around more often. It reminds of Romancing the Stone, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but more importantly all the films those reminded of. There’s little in cinema that more strongly suggests a final act romance than a woman repetitively noting that a man is “infuriating,” and properly coordinating several days on a small boat between feats of derring-do that stop just short of knifing one’s way down a sail is as “action courting” as the world of film gets. It’s a film that is itself a certain love of film and could hardly want of repeated viewings more.
But, when the film becomes a blur of misshapen villains who do not even particularly have any sense behind their afflictions beyond perhaps some note the CGI department mentioned as being a possible thing they could get to screen, things become purposely silly within the confines of the already established wonderfully silly. It isn’t a mix that works. Plemons is wonderful at times, bringing out a curious whimsy to his villainy that feels outrageously like the villain of something kids can watch that also has Nazis, which is one hell of a high wire, but he’s doing it as part of a larger effort that has a lot of creepy gore for its own sake, which largely kills the whimsy.
It should have been better and could have been, apparently falling victim mostly to committee. It’s still a great ride, and ultimately worth every minute, but it isn’t content with its first half, which is far better, and becomes mostly disposable. In order to, one assumes, be a ride more people want to get on, it loses out on being a ride anyone is especially interested in getting back in line for.