Mickey Mouse loves Metallica now. This is the realization that may dawn on you as you recognize strains of “Nothing Else Matters” flitting in and out of the musical score in Jungle Cruise, the new live-action Disney film starring The Rock.
For me, it was the second consecutive film I saw to feature James, Kirk, Lars and the gang, the first being HBO’s Woodstock 99 documentary, Peace, Love, And Rage. It almost goes without saying that it’s weird to see Metallica as a symbol of white male angst one minute and as background music in a girlboss adaptation of a Disneyland ride the next. And that was probably the point: to force Dudes Of A Certain Demo to reconsider what it means to be “a Disney movie.” Just as Cruella incorporated The Sex Pistols and Vivienne Westwood into their origin story for a Dalmatian killer, Jungle Cruise has Metallica and extended allusions to Werner Herzog (Jungle Cruise‘s villain shares a name and historical basis with Klaus Kinski in Aguirre: Wrath Of God).
Which is to say, Jungle Cruise is built on a cultural framework that would be virtually indistinguishable from an Anthony Bourdain episode about the Amazon — Herzog, Metallica, mortality. Even stranger, it sort of works. Jungle Cruise is a zany mashup of Indiana Jones and Pirates Of The Caribbean (with a dash of Avatar) that’s miles better than the last installments of either (not that that’s saying much). It’s a vaguely anti-colonial thrill ride from the most successful cultural colonizers of all time, proof that as Disney’s IP-mining operation continues apace, at least they’re getting pretty good at it. I suppose the question is, when they manage to tap into a vein of parallel interests, does it make you feel seen or just predictable? Do you feel like a fellow traveler or simply another microtargeted interest group?
Leaving that aside, it’s not the references or the Easter eggs that make Jungle Cruise tolerable. It’s competent direction, solid pacing, and chemistry among the performers. While Disney loves to loot the prestige circuit for the latest festival sensations (as they did in Cruella, tapping I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie), Jungle Cruise is directed by Spaniard Jaume Collet-Serra, a director-for-hire who has done a little of everything: teen horror (House Of Wax), secret dwarf hooker horror (The Orphan), middling Liam Neeson shoot em ups (Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter) and Blake Lively shark movies (The Shallows).
With a screenplay by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who wrote, among other things, my all-time favorite Christmas movie, Bad Santa, Jungle Cruise is more of a thinking man’s Jerry Bruckheimer movie, an Amazonian Pirates Of The Caribbean with a better cast (ie, no Orlando Bloom). It’s corporately woke (girlboss protagonist, openly gay sidekick) but not nauseatingly so. The villains are fun and The Rock is about as good as he’s ever been. What more could you ask of a movie based on a corny amusement park ride? (Not a rhetorical question, I genuinely don’t know the answer).
Emily Blunt plays Lily Houghton, an Amazonia Jones type who is obsessed with finding the “tears of the moon,” a magical flower said to grow in the Amazon that supposedly can cure any ailment. Being that she’s a lady, she’s not allowed to address the stuffy National Geographic Society in chauvinistic 1916 England. So she addresses them through a proxy: her foppish brother MacGregor (the handsomely dimple chinned Jack Whitehall). While MacGregor stalls for time in front of the scoffing toffs, Lily sneaks into the archives to steal an ancient arrowhead that could lead her to the flower, putting her on a collision course with the evil Prince Joachim, played by Jesse Plemons (aka Jesse P. Lemons). He’s a son of Kaiser Wilhelm who would use the flower not to heal the sick, but to grow ever more jingoistic mustaches (something like that, we’re mostly left to assume here).
Some chandelier swings and light swashbuckling ensue, and soon the two are on parallel collision courses with Jack Wolff, played by The Rock, a pun-loving huckster leading boat tours along the Amazon river. Lily and her dandy brother need Jack, his boat, and his CGI jaguar sidekick, Proxima to lead them to the tears of the moon. In so doing, they must avoid Prince Joachim (who arrives in a U-boat) and a cabal of murderous zombie conquistadors led by Aguirre (played by Edgar Ramirez, aka New Bodhi from the Point Break remake). Meanwhile, Jack must do it while dodging his molto Italiano creditore, the signore Nilo Nemolato, played bucca di beppitively by Paul Giamatti.
Yes, there is an enchanted gang of Spaniards, a haunted forest, an evil German, a wacky Italian boat magnate, a punning wrestler, and a menagerie of CGI animals, which is a lot for one movie. Too much, in fact. My screener omitted subtitles for Aguirre and Joachim, who speak at least half their lines in Spanish and German, which I initially assumed was an artistic choice. If Disney movies can have Metallica songs and extended Klaus Kinski references now, why not untranslated foreign languages? Mistake or not, I think it actually helped the movie. Not knowing quite what Aguirre is saying allows one to opt out of trying to fully understand Jungle Cruise‘s plot, which is probably for the best.
Corny dad jokes and wrestling-style stunts is The Rock’s exact wheelhouse, and that paired with Ficarra and Requa’s script was enough to squeeze a few genuine laughs from me. A late second act twist allows The Rock to explore, if not the full breadth of his dramatic range, certainly a broader cross-section of it than you’d probably expect in a movie called “Jungle Cruise.” He and Emily Blunt (as good at the plucky heroine as The Rock is at yukked-up musclehead) actually have chemistry. The weakest element of the film is probably all the CGI animals, ironic for a film based on a ride whose main attraction was animatronics. If they’d spent the graphics budget on practical fx and puppetry I feel confident that they’d have something better than “fine at best,” which is about all you can say for Jungle Cruise‘s surely cutting-edge animation.
All of which is to say: Jungle Cruise is pretty good for a movie based on a Disneyland ride. Better than the Pirates of the Caribbean movies at least. Is that what we wanted? Is this what we want?