The first Pirates of the Caribbean was a flash in the pan, wasn’t it? That swashbuckling franchise is back in the conversation due to its similarities to Jungle Cruise, Disney’s latest ride-based blockbuster. Here we have another old-timey adventure starring a driven, liberated woman and a cheeky, roguish man, complete with a band of undead villains trying to lift an ancient curse—all inspired by a simple theme park ride. But the Disney that released Pirates in 2003 is a different studio than it is today: back then, they were genuinely trying to prove themselves to the PG-13 crowd; now, they have so many projects in motion for that audience that Jungle Cruise could be wiped from existence without denting their bottom line.
Anything remotely in the spirit of Pirates is welcome in these dour times, though, so there’s no need to write off Jungle Cruise at first glance. The movie stars Emily Blunt as Dr. Lily Houghton, an intrepid scientist searching for a tree in the Amazon that’s rumored to have magical healing powers. Alongside her is Dwayne Johnson’s brand as Dwayne Johnson as Frank, a riverboat captain who agrees to guide Lily through the jungle for reasons unclear. Joined by Lily’s risk-averse brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), the pair makes their way down the Amazon River, pursued by the delightful Jesse Plemons as an over-the-top German villain.
Besides the setting, the movie’s only real connection to the Jungle Cruise ride is its affinity for puns, which has been transplanted into the script with a loving wink. Otherwise, this is a Disneyfied riff on The Mummy in the vein of a Pirates adventure; there are missiles flying through the water, evil zombie conquistadors, and plenty of deathtraps to navigate— all accompanied by a rollicking score from James Newton Howard. The action’s hit or miss, however, lacking both the corny energy of The Mummy (1999) and the grimy grandiosity of Pirates. The action sequences are all fun in concept, but they’re edited in the modern blockbuster house style that aims for mere followability over things like scope or clarity. Editor Joel Negron has proven his mettle in comedy and Jaume Collet-Serra is a talented director, but it’s hard to imagine they were given leeway to fully exercise their creative muscles. Likewise, the score is so much more exciting than what’s happening on-screen that it feels like it was applied to the wrong movie.
There is one standout sequence worth mentioning, though. It’s the kind of scene at which Pirates excelled and that recent franchises are sorely lacking: an action sequence that pairs rising tension with swelling lust. It’s no mid-battle marriage in a giant whirlpool (all hail Gore Verbinski), but it’s a cheeky antidote to the sexlessness of Disney’s recent blockbuster output. Amusingly, Jungle Cruise maybe swings too far in the other direction—there’s more blatant sexual innuendo in this movie than there is in 80% of Disney’s catalogue. Blunt and Johnson are game for bandying their desires about, even if the latter is admittedly coasting on his charisma and stature.
The film makes some halfhearted gestures at how Disney has grown—there’s a bit that acknowledges the racist, colonial fiction being fed to children on the theme park ride, which was given a “culturally sensitive overhaul” only this year—but Jungle Cruise is mostly a regression from the Pirates days. It’s watchable, but not compelling; jokey, but not laugh-out-loud; fun, but not always. And if I have to sit through another fakeout death in a Disney movie, I’ll throw myself off a building (and survive unscathed).