'Jungle Cruise' Spoiler Review: Steamboat Disney Plots a Familiar Course Down the Blockbuster River

You’ve seen the backside of water in Schweitzer Falls on Disney’s Jungle Cruise attraction, and now we’re coming out the back of the Jungle Cruise movie’s opening weekend. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, it’s the latest live-action Disney feature to capitalize on the brand recognition of an existing theme park ride or animated film.

On Friday, Jungle Cruise had its simultaneous release in theaters and on Disney+ (with $30 Premier Access), so now it’s time to disembark the Amazon Annie and engage in some Monday-morning quarterbacking for the good of all humankind. Gather round the water cooler, bring your best fighting scorpion or tarantula and cult-deprogrammed Disney self, and let’s talk spoilers … and Metallica?

“Nothing Else Matters”

When members of the band Metallica cut their famously long hair circa 1996, some people thought they had sold out. I wonder what those same cynics would think if they knew that 25 years later, Metallica would be outright Disneyfied. Jungle Cruise opens with a reimagined version of the band’s song, “Nothing Else Matters,” courtesy of composer James Newton Howard. It’s surreal, in an elevator music kind of way, to hear the familiar arpeggio on acoustic guitar as Cinderella’s Castle and the Disney logo pop up.

Yes, even your favorite heavy metal power ballad now falls under Disney’s cultural hegemony. This might not bother anyone since many of the teen headbangers who grew up listening to Metallica are probably now middle-aged parents, looking for a little family-friendly entertainment to keep their kids occupied.

Like all things in Disney’s shadow, the music soon fades to the background, anyway, as Jack Whitehall’s character, MacGregor, begins his voiceover, delivering an immediate info dump about the legend of the Tears of the Moon. This is going to be one of those movies where there’s a lot of mythological backstory that needs to be shown and told at the same time.

“A single petal from the great Tree,” MacGregor’s voice confides, “could cure any illness or break any curse.”

Except The Curse of the Black Pearl, apparently, because it or something like it is still going strong in this movie, only the writing team has switched out Pirates of the Caribbean for Conquistadors of the Amazon. To be fair, Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean are both Adventureland attractions. Instead of looking like skeletons or octopi or hammerhead sharks, the conquistadors’ bodies are made up of snakes and honeybees and mud. Barbossa is now Aguirre and he’s played by Edgar Ramirez instead of Geoffrey Rush or Klaus Kinski.

Too many names? Buckle up for some more, Mouseketeers, because yes, this is also one of those movies where the screenplay and story are credited to five different people: Michael Green and Glen Ficarra & John Requa and John Norville & Josh Goldstein. You won’t see their names or anyone else’s until the closing credits because even after the film’s 15-minute intro, when the title Jungle Cruise finally appears onscreen, it’s only prefaced with the words, “Disney Presents.”

By then, Metallica has given way to a musical score that is as un-hummable as most Marvel scores. Speaking of which, the last Disney+ Premier Access release was Black Widow, which co-opted Nirvana’s music in favor of Metallica’s (a fact that must still have Kurt Cobain rolling over in his grave). Jungle Cruise happens to hit the same week that Scarlett Johansson, the star of that movie, filed a lawsuit against The Walt Disney Company for breach of contract.

Disney’s response led to accusations of a “gendered character attack” on Johansson, one of only two women to topline a (long overdue) solo film for Marvel Studios, a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios. For some, it may be tough to reconcile this with the image of daughters dressing up as Disney princesses like Cinderella or Marvel superheroines like Black Widow. Then again, should it really come as a surprise that, in the end, “nothing else matters” to a media conglomerate besides the financial bottom line?

Enter Through the Gift Shop

Jungle Cruise is nothing if not a pastiche. For many viewers, watching it may be like playing one long game of “I understood that reference,” to quote Captain America, another Marvel hero owned by Disney.

As alluded to in our non-spoiler review, pretty much any adult with two eyes is liable to be reminded of some other adventure film, including but not limited to the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean, or Disney’s other seafaring live-action success, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or even a serious war movie like Apocalypse Now (since a stray German U-boat does come submarining in, blasting classical music from a gramophone instead of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” from a tape deck).

To say nothing of The African Queen, Romancing the Stone, or the Mummy franchise and its recycled group dynamic and Scorpion King actor. It leaves the overstimulated streaming viewer to wonder: were movies always this nakedly derivative or is it just that our awareness of their scavenged parts has grown more heightened in the Internet age?

Whichever the answer (probably the latter), there are some Easter eggs in Jungle Cruise that only theme park fanatics are likely to catch. It’s the kind of tentpole that makes men proudly display their Tiki mugs from the Trader Sam’s gift shop in Disneyland, even as their fellow YouTube reviewers give an unimpressed shrug and syllabize, “Oh.” Forget Banksy and Dismaland: this movie asks you to enter, not exit, through the gift shop.

Cannibalistic headhunters get gender-flipped and reworked as intelligent tribal leaders who only act the part of savages to fool tourists. There’s a mercenary quality to such storytelling decisions because they come packaged in a slick corporate product that signals progressive ideals while appealing to nostalgia for sorta racist ride characters.

Speaking as /Film’s former Theme Park Bits columnist, when I think of the Jungle Cruise ride, I think of animatronic animals, mostly because I’m used to riding it at Tokyo Disneyland and my Japanese isn’t good enough to understand the skipper’s running commentary. However, the ride also has the benefit of not being anchored to any one river. It’s set in a dream-world nexus between the rivers of Asia, Africa, and South America.

Maybe we’ll see Asia or Africa in the inevitable sequel. For now, there are only fake hippos, CG jaguars, enchanted dolphins, and edible piranha, because most of the other animals on the ride aren’t native to the Amazon. At least we get to see a retired pro wrestler rassling one such jaguar. “Careful, they can smell fear,” he warns. And we can smell the dodgy effects that bring them to life. Is this Jungle Cruise or The Jungle Book? I forget which live-action jungle movie we’re talking about. Wasn’t Johannsson a singing snake in one of them?

To Be Blunt, It’s Pants

While Black Widow and her lawyers prep for court, Jungle Cruise introduces us to a plucky new Disney heroine: Dr. Lily Houghton, played by Emily Blunt, one of the best actresses working today. Lily is the type of doctor who picks locks and chloroforms men who get in her way. She also performs dancing ladder stunts and is perfectly capable of kicking and punching, even headbutting, her own way out of danger.

At one point, the movie has her jump through the hoops of an attempted kidnapping and escape. It happens in a Brazilian port instead of a Cairo marketplace and her would-be abductors stick her in a birdcage instead of a basket. However, there are monkeys on the loose and other shades of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The difference is that Lily is now the one wearing the hero’s hat: she uses it to subdue an assailant before donning it again in a dramatic fashion, as if to show she is every bit as capable as Indiana Jones. The men are all amazed that she wears pants and one of them even decides to make that her nickname. He alternates between calling her “Lady” and “Pants,” which is weird because she’s British and “pants” is British slang for “rubbish.”

Her brother, meanwhile, is Disney’s first major gay character, which comes across when he says that he couldn’t marry a woman, any woman, because his “interests lie elsewhere.” The movie gives a well-meaning toast to that, and who knows, that birdcage could even be a subtle invocation of The Birdcage.

Blunt is no stranger to live-action Disney flicks, having played the titular nanny in Mary Poppins Returns. Two years ago, I watched that movie on a plane to Walt Disney World and it struck me as inoffensive but somewhat dull and forgettable, especially in terms of music (that being a highlight of the original 1964 Mary Poppins film, starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke).

You could say the same thing about Jungle Cruise but for its Metallica moments. The movie gets by on the charm of its cast, and to audiences looking for an enjoyable time-waster, the morphine drip of entertainment may be enough to override all other concerns.

Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti work their foreign accents (German and Italian, respectively) and we’re reminded that this is a profoundly Eurocentric adventure through South America. Birds squawk “Frank owes me money,” and someone somewhere in Brazil thinks, “Dammit, Hollywood owes us better representation.”

Maybe we all think of Johannsson again and how Disney allegedly owes her money? Or not. Whatever the case, Jungle Cruise is, like the ghosts of Godzillas past, a chip off the old blockbuster. Nothing is egregiously bad, but boredom sets in around the halfway mark as the movie shows its full hand and you realize that includes an undying Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who did play the Scorpion King and who does come face-to-face with a scorpion on the floor of a tavern here).

This Rock is 400 Years Old

Jungle Cruise pretends to kill off Johnson’s jokey skipper, Frank Wolff, but since it’s set in a world of glowing trees with magical healing powers, there’s never any doubt that his plot armor is intact and he will soon be back onscreen, cracking more intentionally groan-worthy jokes about toucans and whatnot. Jean-Vincent Puzos cushions it all with some top-notch production design, — real sets, not just green screens — but the point where I started to lose interest in the whole spectacle was when they asked us to believe that The Rock, an American wrestler turned actor of Samoan descent, was a 400-year-old Spanish conquistador.

Get out of here with that. And you know what, movie? Your own self-conscious script is right: who brings a submarine to the Amazon?

Newton’s version of “Nothing Else Matters” has a Spanish flavor to it, but that’s more than you could say for The Rock. Looking back over his filmography, I realize that I haven’t seen many of Johnson’s movies because they, like those of his self-appointed acting coach Vin Diesel, never held much enticement. My favorite role of his is that of Maui in Moana, where it’s just his voice singing, “You’re Welcome.”

Here, he’s believable and likable as Frank, the steamboat captain, but I didn’t buy him as a Francisco, the immortal cartographer. Is it wrong to want to see more of his simple human side, as opposed to his invincible superhuman side? It’s one thing to have the man make his entrance by swinging around on a jungle vine like Tarzan (when he could have just stepped down the ladder like a normal person). It’s another thing to have him withstand heart stabbings and later petrify but then come back to life. (The Rock, you see, becomes an actual rock.)

Some underwater mouth-to-mouth primes us for Frank’s big kiss with Lily at the end, but their romance also feels like a box that the factory-assembled movie needs to tick in order to be a four-quadrant release. We get a group hug with all three leads and the jaguar, then some slow-walking, then The Rock in period attire as a London gentleman. He looks about as out of place in that top hat as you would expect.

The curse is lifted and we’ve survived the raging river rapids. Looking back, the best part of the movie — this “onion of [digital] deceit,” to paraphrase the dialogue — was those precious few moments when it went silent inside the black-and-white frame of a “moving picture camera.” Having spent enough time on the backlot in Blackhall Studios (in Atlanta, Georgia, where much of the film was shot), I’d like to crawl inside that camera and live there, free of arrowheads and flower-petal MacGuffins. Sometimes, it’s good to go off the map.

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