As Disney grows bigger and acquires more properties, there are countless ways for the company to dominate the box office in any given year: a new Star Wars movie, another entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the latest tear-jerking Pixar project, even the long-awaited sequels to James Cameron’s Avatar. Such domination has come at the expense of projects that feel fresh and marginally original—these days, almost everything Mouse House churns out is a sequel, reboot, remake, or an extension of an established cinematic universe. (Even a studio as lauded as Pixar got a little too sequel-happy for its own good before Onward, Soul, and Luca.) But the box-office receipts speak for themselves, and as Disney doubles down on its strategy of maxing out its IP, the company is returning to an unsung resource: theme park rides.
Considering the studio is so risk-averse, it’s oddly amusing that theme park movie adaptations have repeatedly come out of the Disney pipeline—it’s a gambit that’s almost always failed. A middling made-for-TV adaptation of Tower of Terror got the ball rolling in 1997, but it wasn’t until the turn of the century that Mouse House started really swinging for the fences: If there’s one thing Mission to Mars (2000), The Country Bears (2002), and The Haunted Mansion (2003) have in common, it’s that their sheer WTF-ness was almost instantly met with quizzical responses. Mission to Mars is perhaps the most notable outlier and was directed by the great Brian De Palma (an auteur who’s as un-Disney as they come); it was based on a ride that was already closed and featured legitimately disturbing death scenes despite being rated PG. (This is also why Mission to Mars unironically rules, scathing reviews be damned.)
The latest in the Disney theme park movie canon, Jungle Cruise, arrives on Friday, and it’s probably not the most encouraging sign that some insiders are already bracing for a less-than-stellar financial return. But Jungle Cruise isn’t so much trying to capture the spirit of the eponymous Disney ride—given that it was recently revamped because of racist caricatures, that’s for the best—as it is trying to ape the multibillion-dollar success story of theme park ride moviemaking: the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
When the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, was released in 2003, the whole idea of turning an amusement park ride into a blockbuster was ridiculous—especially given Disney’s previous failures in the space. But The Curse of the Black Pearl was a legitimate hit and a swashbuckling adventure so universally admired that Johnny Depp even landed an Oscar nomination. (When you think of performances that get on the Oscars’ radar, Captain Jack Sparrow hardly comes to mind.) The Curse of the Black Pearl was the fourth-highest-grossing movie of the year, and a sequel was inevitable.
Director Gore Verbinski ended up shooting back-to-back sequels, Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End, to complete a trilogy that broadened the franchise’s fantastical pirate universe—one where, to paraphrase Captain Barbossa, the audience best start believin’ in ghost stories. (As well as giant man-eating krakens, tentacled captains, sea goddesses, and so on.) There are plenty of crowd-pleasing moments in these sequels: the franchise standout, Dead Man’s Chest, is the most effective in mimicking the rollicking experience of an actual theme park ride. But Verbinski also had the license to get exceptionally weird and unexpectedly disturbing. The kraken sequence in Dead Man’s Chest is an impressive feat of filmmaking buoyed by a reliably fantastic Hans Zimmer track, but it’s also a sustained stretch of pure horror. Nothing says “fun for the whole family!” quite like a bunch of innocent sailors being devoured by a colossal sea monster.
Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End were two of the highest-grossing films of 2006 and 2007, respectively, and the sequels were just as noteworthy for what Verbinski was able to do with them. Blockbusters of this scale rarely let an auteur cook. (Verbinski burned much of his Pirates goodwill with The Lone Ranger and A Cure for Wellness, both flops at the box office, though the latter is an underappreciated cult movie in waiting.) The Pirates franchise didn’t slow down after Verbinski completed his trilogy: 2011’s On Stranger Tides grossed more than $1 billion and 2017’s Dead Men Tell No Tales pulled in nearly $800 million. But the movies lost their charm as the franchise steered toward a sequel-making factory like other Disney properties. (A spinoff led by Margot Robbie is currently in the works.)
Considering how Disney’s other theme park movie adaptations have routinely bombed, it seems that Pirates became the exception, in part, by latching itself to an up-and-coming filmmaker who got the most out of a movie star’s unconventional lead performance. (Jack Sparrow is a lot of things; boring isn’t one of them.) What’s more, Pirates has eclipsed the ride it was based on; younger audiences might not even realize that the attraction preceded the films, especially now that the experience was tweaked so that it’s more connected to the franchise. In the same way that Indiana Jones’s iconography is often treated as its own thing and rarely associated with the old Republic Pictures serials that inspired it, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have transcended its comparatively wonky origins. Pirates is now more recognizable as a valuable piece of IP responsible for more than $4 billion in box-office revenue, not a theme park attraction.
The relative box-office success of the last two Pirates movies in spite of their underwhelming critical reception is proof that the franchise is almost too big to fail. But copying the Pirates model and recapturing its magic is easier said than done, especially now that major studio movies have become increasingly homogenized. On paper, Disney entrusting its 2015 theme park movie adaptation of Tomorrowland to Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) wasn’t a bad idea, but the film nevertheless flopped and ended up costing the company an estimated $120 million. Tomorrowland isn’t on the level of Bird’s greatest films—frankly, few are—but more crucially, it entered a theatrical landscape in which the five highest-grossing movies of the year were the first entry of a new Star Wars trilogy (The Force Awakens), a new Jurassic Park movie (Jurassic World), a Fast & Furious sequel (Furious 7), Avengers: Age of Ultron, and a Pixar movie (Inside Out). Not only were all these movies based on preestablished IP, but they were also parts of some of the most commanding franchises in Hollywood. The first four all crossed the billion-dollar threshold.
Comparatively, the only movie to make more than $1 billion when The Curse of the Black Pearl came out in 2003 was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—the end of a beloved trilogy that ended up winning all 11 of its categories at the Oscars the following year. Make no mistake, IP was already starting to take over Hollywood when The Curse of the Black Pearl came out in 2003: Return of the King notwithstanding, the highest-grossing movies of the year included two Matrix sequels, X2, and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. But since the MCU kicked off in 2008, it’s become even more difficult for original blockbusters to thrive. Compared to Endgame and The Rise of Skywalker, a movie based on an amusement park ride, with no other franchise connections, seems almost quaint.
It remains to be seen how Jungle Cruise fares, but the ingredients are promising, with an underappreciated B-movie auteur at the helm in Jaume Collet-Serra and a cast of well-liked actors—Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, and Edgar Ramírez—doing the absolute most. (Plemons’s and Giamatti’s inspired and truly bizarre accent work must be heard to be believed.) If the Jungle Cruise directive was “be like Pirates, but in the Amazon,” it’s hard to argue that the project doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. But in a moviemaking era dominated by other Disney properties in Marvel and Star Wars, it feels increasingly likely that any theme park film adaptation that isn’t the Pirates of the Caribbean will walk the plank.