Jungle Cruise and the lost art of the action-adventure movie

The muddled response to Jungle Cruise still suggests there’s appetite for a kind of movie Hollywood seems reluctant to make.

african queen

Currently doing solid business in cinemas is delayed, but finally, Jungle Cruise is the latest big-budget blockbuster to star Emily Blunt and Dwayne’ The Rock’ Johnson. It’s a pretty decent romp, albeit one that invokes the memories of other films that it’d be more fun to watch. Take your pick: the first Pirates Of The Caribbean, the first The Mummy, even going right back to The African Queen. But it’s also Disney’s attempt to get back to what blockbuster cinema went through an unexpected phase of doing exceptionally well in the late 90s and 2000s: blockbuster adventure movies.

The modern template for these, pretty obviously, became the Indiana Jones saga, particularly films one and three in that box set. But go back to 1999, the summer when all eyes were on Star Wars and its return to the big screen with The Phantom Menace, and out of the blue came a fresh contender.

Deep Rising

That’d be The Mummy, a blockbuster reimagining of classic Universal horror. This time though, the studio had hired director Stephen Sommers – who was behind the underrated Deep Rising – and on a tight budget for what he turned out, he delivered. A funny, exciting, action-packed adventure. And his trump card was a lead you could get behind in Brendan Fraser. Sommers was savvy enough to stack his cast with quality throughout Rachel Weisz, John Hannah and a sparkling Omid Djalili in his movie debut. The result exceeded industry and audience expectations, and a franchise was reborn.

What followed was a purple patch for films of that ilk. Aside from the inevitable The Mummy Returns, Disney was quickly into action. Keen to leverage the crossover branding of its theme parks, it had already been mulling crossing its Pirates Of The Caribbean brand over to the movies. By 2002, it had what would be the first of many in the series before the cameras, and the most lucrative movie franchise of the decade – outside of Harry Potter – was born.

Pirates of the Caribbean 5 – Behind the Scenes

But also, what the swashbuckling adventures of Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl gave the industry was confidence. When Hollywood finds a successful formula, it’s not shy about Xeroxing it. Thus, Nicolas Cage got the call for a pair of mightily enjoyable National Treasure films, and the cash kept rolling in. 

Yet by the end of the 2000s, the adventure movie revival was all but done. Perhaps it’s the dwindling quality of the Pirates sequels that has to shoulder a bit of the blame (although the billions kept rolling in). But also Disney found bigger fish. In the mid-2000s, it acquired Pixar, and a decade on, it’d also own Marvel and Star Wars.

In the end, the revenues from their associated franchises dwarfed that of the hugely expensive Pirates films. The studio leaned increasingly toward remaking its classic animated hits in assorted forms for its live-action slate. The adventure movie gradually became too big of a gamble again. The closest we’ve got to it has been the big-screen reboot of Tomb Raider, but – appreciating a sequel that is finally on the way – that still feels like something the jury’s still out on.

Which makes the existence at all of Jungle Cruise something of a surprise. Granted, Disney is bringing together two factors that have worked in the past under one umbrella. The spirit of those National Treasures and Pirates movies, and all the recognition of a theme park attraction to which the film is allied.

Reviews of Jungle Cruise have demonstrated the affection for movies of its ilk, but just how much ground the film in question fell short by. Take Amon Warmann, who effectively took the temperature of things with his immediate Tweet.

Jungle Cruise, strangely for a film that cost a reported $200m, ultimately lacks confidence. It’s odd to conclude, but come the second half of the movie, there’s less trust in the characters and the adventure side of things, as half the contents of Silicon Valley are instead poured onto the screen. The visual effect after visual effect gets in the way, to the film’s detriment. What you’re left with is a movie that reminds you of other movies.

Still, there’s appetite. Appreciating that the film’s success is in part down to the profile of its two leads, it’s done around $65m of business in American cinemas, with additional revenues coming from its availability on Disney+ (via its Premier Access section, which comes with a not-cheap extra charge). Far less than expectations, certainly, but we’re still in the new normal where box office reporting is concerned. Things are a long way from settled in the Covid area.

As such, it’s unclear whether the teased Jungle Cruise 2 will happen, but it’s much more confident that the next contender in the genre – Indiana Jones 5 – will do. That’s filming now for release in the summer of 2022. It’s unthinkable that Harrison Ford’s swansong in one of his two most famous roles won’t be a huge box office draw. Assuming all goes to plan, might that be the one to re-ignite a blockbuster movie style that seems to have accidentally gone out of fashion? My fingers are very much crossed…


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