Jungle Cruise: Buckle up for a new cinematic ride

Jungle Cruise (2021) is the latest movie to be based on a theme park attraction - specifically, a Disney theme park attraction. It's set in the early 20th century and stars Dwayne Johnson as a riverboat captain who takes a scientist (Emily Blunt) and her brother (Jack Whitehall) on a dangerous journey down the Amazon to find the healing Tree of Life.

The film opened in cinemas on July 29 and started on Disney+ with Premier Access from July 30. The duelling trailers - one from Johnson's perspective, one from Blunt's - are amusing and demonstrate how editing and alternative takes can provide different emphases.

It's too early to tell if Jungle Cruise will be a critical and/or commercial hit, of course. The success rate of such adaptations to date has not been high but perhaps Disney has learned from its mistakes.

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt star in Jungle Cruise. Picture: Frank Masi.

Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt star in Jungle Cruise. Picture: Frank Masi.

Theme park rides - Disney and otherwise - are usually inspired by existing films, TV shows, characters and other properties rather than the other way around. But Disney is diligent about mining its heritage - movie remakes, TV spinoffs, and theme park attractions are among the results.

The original Jungle Cruise opened in Disneyland in 1955, the year the park opened, and as with other attractions, various Disney parks also have, or had, their own versions.

It's a guided riverboat ride simulating the sights and sounds of rivers in Africa, Asia and South America with audio-animatronic lions, tigers and other critters (real animals were considered but would have been too expensive and unpredictable).

The movie, to judge by the trailer, has a number of nods to its inspiration including the groan-inducing "back side of water" gag.

Jungle Cruise has been a long time coming. More than a decade ago, Tom Hanks and Tim Allen were going to star in a Jungle Cruise movie, obviously an attempt to capitalise on their Toy Story popularity. But for whatever reason - scheduling? salaries? script? - this didn't happen and new writers came on board and other changes were made. Filming finally began in 2018.

This is not, of course, the first movie based on a Disney theme park attraction.

In 1997 there was a Disney TV movie starring Steve Guttenberg called Tower of Terror. It was based on The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a spooky attraction at some Disney theme parks. The ride was inspired by The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling's sci-fi/fantasy TV series (a non-Disney property now replaced in California by a Disney-owned Marvel Guardians of the Gallery-themed ride). A big-screen adaptation is reportedly in the works with Scarlett Johansson starring and producing. We'll see what happens.

Mission to Mars (2000) was next and, curiously, came several years after the attraction that ostensibly inspired it had shut (it started as Rocket to the Moon in 1955 and was changed to Mission to Mars in 1975). The movie was set in 2020 and overoptimistically envisaged a manned flight to Mars that year. It wasn't a big critical or box office success.

The Country Bears (2002) - based on the Country Bear Jamboree attraction - was yet another fizzer. It told the story of the efforts made to reunite the members of an all-bear country rock band to play a fundraising concert in order to save their old performance hall (shades of The Blues Brothers).

The film combined human characters with actors in animatronic bear costumes. Cameos included Elton John and Willie Nelson. Even that didn't help.

The Haunted Mansion (2003) was based on and incorporated elements of the Disneyland attraction, such as the ghostly head of Madame Leota in a crystal ball.

The horror comedy starred Eddie Murphy during his new, more family-friendly phase, but was yet another disappointment, commercially and critically.

Tomorrowland (2015) was a bit of a mess but at least it was an interesting one.

It had a tenuous connection to the Disney "land" of the same name (one problem was that it seemed too expansive: one ride should, if appropriate, provide plenty of inspiration for one film) and - yes - ended up being a flop, though some critics admired its ambition.

With all the largely forgotten failures, why does Disney keep mining its theme park attractions for material?

It is, of course, another source of inspiration to delve into, along with the more common sources like books and stories. There's a certain audience familiarity, not that that necessarily translates into ticket sales, and in most cases the rights are owned by Disney.

It takes more than a great ride to make a great movie, though.

DIsney's persistence paid off, or they finally got lucky, with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pool (now streaming on Disney+).

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Picture: Disney

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales. Picture: Disney

The Pirates franchise was inspired by the 1967 Disneyland dark ride that opened the year after Walt Disney died - one of the last projects in which he had direct involvement.

The series began in 2003 with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and has had four sequels (so far).

It starred Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow, inspired by the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards (who played Jack's father in two of the movies) and resilient skunk Pepe Le Pew.

The films paid homage to their source in various ways, including the song Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life For Me) and several scenes and images. Characters from the movies were later inserted into the ride, a nice turnaround.

I haven't heard any word on whether there will be future Disney-attraction movies, but let us hope - fervently - that It's a Small World is never among them. That song on infinite loop could be used as an instrument of torture.

This story Buckle up for a new cinematic ride first appeared on The Canberra Times.