Long ago, Disney announced it would make movie versions of its theme-park attractions.
The world promptly and properly groaned. We envisioned spinning teacups becoming flying saucers … the Carousel of Progress whirling in reverse … an insurrection inside the Hall of Presidents … or the Tiki Room crew enmeshed in some sort of gruesome “The Birds” sequel.
We thought this would be terrible … and often were right. But good things can happen to bad ideas; “The Jungle Cruise” – which has just opened in theaters and as pay-extra on Disney+ – is quite fun.
Yes, it’s sometime s excessive, sometimes overwrought; what isn’t nowadays? But it’s often salvaged by its solid cast – led by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt (shown here with Jack Whitehall) – and a fairly clever script.
This notion – turning an amusement ride into a movie – started shakily. There was a TV movie (“Tower of Terror”) in1997 and then several big-screen films.
“Mission to Mars” (2000) made $111 million worldwide – not enough to justify its big budget. “The Country Bears” (2002) made a dismal $18 million. Eddie Murphy’s “The Haunted Mansion” (2003) made $182 million.
Each tended to get bad-to-middlin’ reviews. We were preparing our “I told you so” speech. Except …
“Pirates of the Caribbean” also arrived in 2003, with great visuals and a delightful Johnny Depp performance. In all, there have been five “Pirates” movies, totaling $4.5 billion; they more than made up for all those other losers.
There would be one more money-loser: “Tomorrowland” (2015) made $209 million – not enough, considering its budget. Some critics (including me) loved it, but the overall reaction was mixed.
Now comes “Jungle Cruise,” which should do fine. In its opening weekend, Disney says, it made $90 million – a third of it from Disney+ subscribers who paid extra to see it now on “Premier Access.”
And from here, I’d expect it to keep thriving. It’s a fun film.
Johnson plays Frank, who’s barely getting by with his battered boat and seat-of-the-pants approach. Han Solo would understand.
He meets his opposite: Lily (Blunt) is organized, meticulous, focused. They argue a lot and some people might assume they will always hate each other. Those people have never seen a movie.
There are a few side characters of import: Her gay brother is written way too broadly, but salvaged by Whitehall’s understated performance. Villains are played by Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti, in roles that require none of the actors’ skill and nuance.
What makes the film work are the two leads. This is 1916 and Frank is thrown off by Lily’s attire – he calls her “Pants” throughout the story – and her attitude. He’s a flawed guy on the surface – bad scams, worse puns – who finally gets to show his decent core.
Yes, “Jungle Cruise” piles a lot on top of that. It dives deep into the supernatural, recycling a few “Pirates of the Caribbean” creatures along the way. It gets way too broad at times.
But it’s a lot of fun along the way … more so, perhaps, than the “Country Bears” movie.