‘Jungle Cruise’: Based On An Amusement Park Ride

Feel free to blame the actor for any number of things, if you want. But specifically, in terms of riot-act reading, let’s go back to 2003, when Mr. Depp slapped on a head scarf, trotted out his best Keef Richards wobble and slur, and turned what felt like a Disney Hail-Mary I.P. cash-in into a cash cow. No one expected a movie based on an amusement park ride based on creaky, age-old seafaring stories to give birth to a popular franchise; no one expected a movie about 18th century pirates to show up in the early part of the 21st century, period. (What is this, the Watchmen universe?)

Depp is responsible for turning the Pirates of the Caribbean films into hits, even when the series slipped into diminishing-returns territory. More importantly, he helped to prove a Mouse House theorem: When it comes to licensing, exploiting and rebooting, why stop at your best-known characters? Find the right actor, and you can sell your park properties’ greatest hits as intellectual properties too. If you can hire a better-than-decent director and keep the pace frantic, all the better. The movies then direct customers back to the park, and the circle of l̶i̶f̶e̶ commerce continues. The question was not whether this was the beginning of a trend but what the next “title” would be and how soon we’d be E-ticketing to a theater near us.

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The reprieve lasted longer than we thought, enough to lull us into a false sense of security. Maybe it’s unfair to blame the ghost of Jack Sparrow and the Pirates boom-bust of yore for Jungle Cruise. But dear Walt in the heavens, the shadow of that series looms large over this attempt to sell the Magic Kingdom’s vintage, colonialism-a-go-go boat ride as the next big endless-summer-movie thing. To be fair, so too does the specter of the Indiana Jones films, The African Queen, steampunk, old-school Werner Herzog, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne, the entire previous filmography of the Rock, that book on Ponce de Leon you forgot to return to your library in fourth grade and every boys’ adventure ever written.

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