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‘Jungle Cruise’ Tries Way Too Hard to Be ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ (Commentary)

Dead men apparently tell exceedingly similar tales

WARNING: Spoilers for Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” in the waters ahead. You have been warned.

Disney’s latest adventure is a journey through dangerous waters, on the hunt for a magic treasure — but be wary of those immortal beings cursed by said treasure. They’re not to be trifled with, but don’t worry, you’ll have the help of a lovable rogue, who knows the ins and out of the cursed ones having been part of their crew, and he’s played one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.

If you’re checking your calendar right now, no, it’s not 2003, and I’m not talking about “Pirates of the Caribbean.” I’m actually referring to “Jungle Cruise,” out in theaters and Disney+ with Premier Access now. But you can be forgiven for the mistake, because it sure feels an awful lot like the early 2000s hit — and that’s its biggest pitfall.

Now, before we get into this, I should note that “Jungle Cruise” is still fun and worth seeing — maybe multiple times if you’re a kid. And Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt make a great pair, both comedically and emotionally. But it could’ve been so much more than a remix.

Because no, it doesn’t try to be LIKE “Pirates of the Caribbean,” it tries to BE “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

In fairness, the rides that inspired the movies are similar: Leisurely boat trips packed with eye candy (and jokes) that you get on when you need a break from walking. But while the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie gets in both of those nouns, “Jungle Cruise” is mostly just the cruise, not jungle — that is to say, the movie is essentially one prolonged boat chase, in pursuit of a treasure. Like “Pirates.”

Granted that comes down to one the biggest plot points of the movie: The curse. Now seriously, if you don’t want “Jungle Cruise” spoilers, turn back now. Okay? Here we go.

As it turns out, Dwayne Johnson’s Frank isn’t just a skipper — he’s an immortal, 400-year-old conquistador who was part of an expedition to find the Tears of the Moon (a plant that heals any and every ailment). He and his shipmates, led by Edgar Ramirez’s Aguirre, were cursed after Aguirre attempted to steal the plant and subsequently destroyed its protectors’ village.

You know, like how in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” where Captain Barbossa and his crew stole forbidden treasure, were cursed with immortality, and couldn’t walk in the moonlight without turning into ghost pirates? Okay, let’s continue.

As Frank explains, he and the crew can never leave sight of the river, or the jungle will forcibly pull them back. Of course, Frank didn’t actually want to be part of the ambush to steal the Tears of the Moon, so after betraying Aguirre, the two did battle over and over again for the next few centuries.

Eventually, Frank bested the crew by luring them to a cave just far enough away from the river. When the jungle tried to forcibly pull them back, it couldn’t, and they found themselves trapped in the cave walls, turned to stone as the jungle ravaged their bodies.

Of course, those men are inevitably awoken and when they are, they’re essentially jungle zombies. Some have bodies made up of vines and snakes, others have a head of bees (literally), and just about all of them can reform their bodies should a part of them be destroyed.

Or, as all of that was previously known, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.” Where the crew of the Flying Dutchman were quite literally “part of the crew, part of the ship,” supernaturally made part of their surroundings, their bodies eventually morphed in parts of the sea, and its creatures.

Frank even has a scar over his heart, from where a dagger is plunged into him during battle. It looks an awful lot like the scar Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) bears after having his heart cut out at the end of “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.”

At the end of the day, if you use an established formula, you better do it as well, if not better than the original. Otherwise, the original is all people will think about. It might have worked if river tour guides had the cool factor and flare of pirates have. But dad jokes and a 3-person-crew aren’t exactly buckling swashes.

Frank and Lily are clearly meant to be a parallel of sorts to Will and Elizabeth, but their love is far more tame. They aren’t exactly star-crossed lovers they’re just…kindred spirits. In fact, for the bulk of the movie, their flirting feels more like a sibling rivalry, which unintentionally eclipses the actual brother/sister relationship Lily has to MacGregor.

At the same time though, Frank is a clear Jack Sparrow stand-in, but without the same commitment to eccentricity or unpredictability. He lies a lot, but it’s never a possible danger, and as such here’s never any doubt about where he stands or whose side he’s on — and that significantly lowers the stakes. It’s imitation without the substance to back it up, and that makes the ways the movie doesn’t go its own way even more glaring,

“Pirates of the Caribbean” used the somewhat aimless, gimmicky ride it was based on as inspiration for a wholly original story on the high seas, with actual stakes, and original characters. “Jungle Cruise” had the same opportunity, but instead just grafted the ride’s corny puns and broad setting onto the tropes of “Pirates,” misunderstanding entirely why “Pirates” worked at all.

“Jungle Cruise” certainly takes us on a journey down the amazon river, but at no point does it feel like our heroes might actually lose. Jesse Plemon’s Prince Joachim is nowhere near as terrifying at Captain Barbossa or Davy Jones.

Where “Pirates of the Caribbean” backed up their core three characters with a literal ship’s worth of memorable secondary characters, “Jungle Cruise” just had Paul Giamatti’s (someone you really only remember because the appearance of Paul Giamatti himself was a bit unexpected in a movie like this).

“Jungle Cruise” wants really badly to replicate the success of the “Pirates” franchise, but it feels more like copied homework than a story in its own right. And, with each repeated plot device, it’s near impossible to keep the mind from wandering back to the “Pirates” franchise, and inevitably comparing the two.

But on the bright side, it’ll at least be fun if Dwayne Johnson is added to the actual theme park ride the same way Johnny Depp was.