AS PERHAPS DISNEY'S MOST NOTABLE MOVIE BASED ON A THEME PARK RIDE, SAYS THE RINGER
The release of Jungle Cruise this week prompts The Ringer's Miles Surry to look at the modern state of "theme park ride movies." Brian De Palma took over as director of Mission To Mars after Gore Verbinski had dropped off of that project, and Verbinski eventually had hits with a different Disney theme park ride movie:
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.