Ever since Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl hit big in 2003, Disney have been desperate to recapture the unique lightning in a bottle that was Gore Veribinski’s swashbuckler, whether it be mining their own back catalogue for inspiration or trying to apply the same basic setup to other properties. It didn’t work with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or The Lone Ranger, and they barely even pulled it off with four Pirates sequels that gradually suffered from the law of diminishing returns, but Jaume Collet’s Serra’s Jungle Cruise is finally here after a lengthy delay to try and hit that sweet spot.
The good news is that it’s arguably the best attempt at aping the formula since Dead Man’s Chest fifteen years ago, depending on how you feel about the polarizing At World’s End, while it’s definitely superior to On Stranger Tides and Dead Men Tell No Tales. The downside is that Jungle Cruise isn’t just painfully derivative of Pirates, but other popular movies too. In fact, the Mouse House’s latest big budget offering barely even tries to hide how indebted it is to not just Curse of the Black Pearl, but Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy, the original Indiana Jones trilogy and Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone, which makes the film’s many shortcomings all the more notable when every single one of those aforementioned titles is much better.
Jungle Cruise opens in 1916 London, where we instantly find out that Emily Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton isn’t taken seriously in her male-dominated field, forcing her to send her brother as a proxy before she gets involved in an early action sequence featuring a library ladder, which of course roughly happened in The Mummy with Rachel Weisz’s Evie Carnahan. After stealing away a mysterious MacGuffin, Lilly and Jack Whitehall’s MacGregor head off to the Amazon, where a case of mistaken identity puts them in league with Dwayne Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a roguish boat captain with a grizzled charm, smoldering intensity and twinkle in his eye.
Swap Johnson for Brendan Fraser, Whitehall for John Hannah and Blunt for Weisz, and it’s so far so Mummy all the way. The Pirates of the Caribbean influences don’t creep in until later on, and they’re melded to a spot of Indy for good measure as we get a series of exposition dumps about the Tears of the Moon, a mythical flower with magic healing powers that’s being pursued by a scene-stealing Jesse Plemons as German aristocrat Prince Joachim, who enlists a troupe of supernatural conquistadors made up of things like snakes, bees and trees to do his bidding, stop our intrepid heroes and gain the flower for himself. Again, swap out the conquistadors for undead pirates, replace the distractingly CGI’d Edgar Ramirez with Captain Barbossa, and to paraphrase the man himself: you’re not just looking at a ripoff, you’re in one.
However, it’s hard to be mad at Jungle Cruise, because it doesn’t even try to pretend that it possesses even the merest shred of originality. You can’t help but raise a wry smile at Plemons chowing down on the scenery as he pops up from a submarine in the middle of the jungle and starts firing a double-barreled machine gun, but the real saving grace of the entire operation is unsurprisingly the double act between Johnson and Blunt. No offense to Whitehall, who does fine with the material he’s given, but MacGregor is literally a passenger comprised of easy jokes and stuffy stereotypes, and Disney touting him as the first openly gay male lead in a live-action family film is a misnomer that reeks of the studio patting themselves on the back, but that’s another discussion for another time.
Although Johnson and Blunt have absolutely zero romantic chemistry, as the beating heart of Jungle Cruise, they bounce off each other spectacularly. You can tell the two stars got along great both on and offscreen, and the constant barbs and withering putdowns thrown back and forth between Frank and Lily keep things ticking along nicely, even when the plot constantly sags under an over-reliance on spelling things out and a number of lengthy flashbacks. On paper and in practice, Frank is The Rock on autopilot, but his world-weary attitude, unmatched star power and a couple of genuinely unexpected rug-pulls provide several jolts of electricity that Jungle Cruise could use more often.
One of those flashbacks is even set to a thumping orchestral/rock reworking of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” that the band arranged themselves for composer James Newton Howard, which is the sort of bizarre and random aside appearing straight out of the blue that Jungle Cruise should have doubled down on a lot more often to set itself apart, instead of keeping things as formulaic as possible.
Instead, it’s very safe and often sterile, devolving into a clusterf*ck of unconvincing CGI as all of the major set piece boxes get ticked off one by one before the third act climax, and it can never shake how obvious it is that we’re watching actors play off against each other on a green screen backdrop, with the lack of anything tangible often making it hard to fully immerse yourself in the world or the story that inhabits it.
Jungle Cruise is far from a bad movie, but it feels like Collet-Serra had been handed a list of things to use as visual and narrative reference points, only to take the brief too literally. Johnson and Blunt are fantastic together, there’s a couple of decent action scenes and it’s the sort of lightweight froth that could become a staple of Saturday afternoons for years to come, but you can never shake the feeling that you’ve seen almost every plot or character beat done before, and done much better.