The teaser for Jungle Cruise feels very much like an effort to capture the excitement of those first three Pirates films, directed by Gore Verbinski. From its charming leads, whose popularity and box office draw arguably exceed that of Johnny Depp in the early 2000s, to the film’s narrative which relies on a quest for a mythological source of immortality, Jungle Cruise feels like heir apparent to the Pirates franchise with a dash of National Treasure (2004). Of course, Disney has tried to sell audiences on that comparison before with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), Tron: Legacy (2010), John Carter (2012) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013), all of them movies I enjoy, but there’s no denying that there was no real audience demand for sequels, excepting Tron: Legacy which has become something of a cult hit. Yet, Jungle Cruise stands likely to break free of those films, perhaps because Disney has become so dominant with familiar brands, and films like Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean feel like novelties of the past that we’re just starting to become nostalgic for again.
Collet-Serra, who recently signed on to reteam with Johnson as the director of the Shazam! (2019) spin-off Black Adam, has the kind of ability to connect with audiences that Verbinski displayed. From horror films to Liam Neeson action films, Collet-Serra has displayed the kind of cross-genre abilities that audiences seem to want from their modern day blockbusters. I’d argue that one of the reason why superhero movies have become so popular is because they manage to give audiences a bit of everything in true comic book fashion. Perhaps we’re seeing original IP struggle because they are attempting to stay in one lane, and within a single tone. Yet, Jungle Cruise, even in the brief flashes of the trailer, looks to straddle the lines of swashbuckling adventure, buddy comedy, and horror – all aspects that made Pirates land, and does so without superheroes. As popular as superhero movies have become and as great as many of them are, there is a desire for something else to populate summer movie season, something I think accounts for the billion dollar successes of the Jurassic World and Fast & Furious series.
Financially, Disney didn’t need to make Jungle Cruise and that may be what makes it so exciting. It feels like a breath of fresh air, a throwback not just to the pulp fiction of the 20th century but the blockbusters of the early 2000s when high concepts, big names, and filmmaker’s with a vision still had a chance to launch a new franchise without the weight of a cinematic universe or the expectations of fandom. We’ve been down this river before, and there’s more competition now than ever at the box office, but if we’re lucky, Jungle Cruise could chart a path for Disney to start taking a few more chances outside of their guaranteed money-makers.