Disney’s theme-park-attraction-to-feature-film track record has been somewhat dicey, with the formula being tough-to-cracks and the results being mostly lackluster. (Let the record state that I am a huge fan of Brian De Palma’s unfairly maligned “Mission to Mars” and Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland,” which wasn’t a direct adaptation but took inspiration from the futuristic section of Disney Parks.) The “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, currently five-films deep, is the obvious exception, a sprawling, hugely entertaining series that referenced the attraction directly and, in turn, inspired the attraction all over again. But given Johnny Depp’s problematic personal life and a stalled attempt to reboot the franchise, courtesy of the “Deadpool” writers, even that particular franchise has stalled. Sure, there have been overtures in the years since “Pirates of the Caribbean” broke through to recapture that magic, with development on a Matterhorn-based movie and another inspired by Space Mountain, but there hasn’t been anything that matches the charm, appeal and nerdy bona fides of “Pirates of the Caribbean” … until now.
On Saturday at the D23 Expo, the first footage from “Jungle Cruise,” starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, was screened for the adoring (and incredibly vocal) crowd. There was footage from the perspective of both characters, and the actors got into some fun banter on the stage about who the real star of the movie was. But what was clear from the footage (beautifully photographed by Flavio Martínez Labiano and energetically directed by the great Jaume Collet-Serra) was that the same winning balance of adventure, period detail, supernaturally-tinged scariness, and high-wattage star power that made “Pirates of the Caribbean” not just a film but a phenomenon, is all on display in “Jungle Cruise.” It’s that good.
Johnson’s clip started off with him piloting a hokey jungle cruise that is almost exactly like the iconic attraction that Walt Disney himself oversaw at Disneyland (and has been duplicated in Florida, Tokyo and Hong Kong). Considering the D23 Expo takes place down the street from Disneyland, this was very much the crowd to appreciate these jokes. At one point Johnson even does the “backside of water” gag and the crowd erupted. The setting of the film is the early 20th century, and let the record state that Johnson’s more modern physique doesn’t feel out of place; he’s like an old timey bruiser. He’s down on his luck, too, under fire from a rival boat captain (Paul Giamatti oozing villainous intent), when is hired by Emily Blunt’s character, a scientist charting a course down river to investigate some legendary claims. (This is where most of the trailers were similar.) The two bicker, fight, fall in love (of course), and encounter some very creepy baddies, who appear to be transformed by the mythical Tree of Life. We think one of the plant-men is played by Edgar Ramirez but couldn’t get a close enough look to be 100% sure. (It’s safe to assume that Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects house now owned by Disney and who were responsible for creating the skeleton pirates and Davy Jones’ underwater crew, also made these creatures.)
What is very apparent from the “Jungle Cruise” footage is that the filmmakers have a really deep understanding of what makes the Jungle Cruise attraction so effective and fun and that, while they aren’t doing a note-for-note adaptation, that understanding can be felt in every scene. This is part of what made the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films so effective (Particularly the initial trilogy); you could feel the love and passion in every frame. The idea of taking one of the famous Jungle Cruise skippers, turning them into Dwayne Johnson, and have him dopily fall in love with Emily Blunt while being chased by monsters, is just genius.
And while several more hallmarks of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” playbook are dutifully checked off (supernatural evil, an emphasis on humor and heart, adventure!), it also feels unique and fun. So many films recently (including, bafflingly, “Aquaman”) have name-checked “Romancing the Stone” as one of their touchstones; particularly the marriage of whip-smart screwball comedy and genuine thrills. And none of those movies have even come close to capturing that kind of magic, although “Jungle Cruise” seems like it just might. There’s a moment towards the end of the footage when Johnson is trying to do something really heroic and he falls backwards, off of a table. It’s so funny and real and disarming, and given Johnson's track record of playing relatable characters caught up in extraordinary circumstances, felt very human. There was something so old fashioned and funny and charming about it; it really did take you back to watching “Back to the Future” (or something similarly light-hearted but still suspenseful) on television.
Of course, we’re almost a full year away from the film’s release (it drops July 24, 2020) and we only saw a few minutes of footage. But there really was the sensation that Disney finally cracked the code that made “Pirates of the Caribbean” such a worldwide sensation. We just can’t wait to take a trip on this “Jungle Cruise.”
For more coverage from the D23 Expo 2019, click here!
Jack Sparrow, a freewheeling 18th-century pirate, quarrels with a rival pirate bent on pillaging Port Royal. When the governor's daughter is kidnapped, Sparrow decides to help the girl's love save her. Read More