Could 'Jungle Cruise' Launch a 'Pirates'-Style Franchise?

The new trailer for the theme park-based film harkens back to a time before Disney owned Marvel and Lucasfilm.

A new adventure awaits.

Walt Disney Studios on Friday released the first teaser trailer for Jungle Cruise starring Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson. The film, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, is based on the popular Disney parks attraction but will draw inspiration from pulp adventure magazines and serials of the early 20th century in which the pic is set. Blunt’s Lily Houghton, a scientist, and Johnson’s Frank, a river boat captain, form an unlikely duo as their journey through the dangers of the jungle take them in search of The Tree of Life. Disney is obviously hoping for franchise potential with this film, with a series that could perhaps give the studio its own territory in the budding reinvention of the archaeological adventure subgenre that counts Johnson’s Jumanji, the upcoming Uncharted, Tomb Raider 2 and potentially Disney’s own fifth Indiana Jones films among it. Yet, the studio’s investment in a new property comes as something of a surprise, especially since it has mostly given up its investment in new live-action IP in favor of reliable, billion-dollar brands.

Development for Jungle Cruise began in 2006, just a few years after Disney had experimented with turning park attractions into movies with three films: The Country Bears (2002), The Haunted Mansion (2003) and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of Black Pearl (2003). Out of those three, only Pirates of the Caribbean connected with critics and audiences and launched a franchise, comprised of five films so far. In the years before Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm became what they are today — subsidiaries of Walt Disney Studios — Disney chased after the success of Pirates of the Caribbean in search of a live-action franchise it could bank on. None proved viable, and a string of box office disappointments led the studio take fewer chances with IP, which ultimately led to the string of Disney live-action remakes that are currently dominating the box office along with Marvel and Star Wars.

The teaser for Jungle Cruise feels very much like an effort to capture the excitement of those first three Pirates films, which were directed by Gore Verbinski. From its charming leads, whose popularity and box office draw arguably exceed that of Johnny Depp in the early 2000s, to the film’s narrative, which relies on a quest for a mythological source of immortality, Jungle Cruise feels like the heir apparent to the Pirates franchise with a dash of National Treasure (2004). Of course, Disney has tried to sell audiences on that comparison before with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), Tron: Legacy (2010), John Carter (2012) and Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) — all of them movies I enjoy, but there’s no denying that there was no real audience demand for sequels, excepting Tron: Legacy, which has become something of a cult hit. Yet Jungle Cruise stands likely to break free of those films, perhaps because Disney has become so dominant with familiar brands, and pics like Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean feel like novelties of the past that we’re just starting to become nostalgic for again.

Collet-Serra, who recently signed on to reteam with Johnson as director of the Shazam! (2019) spinoff Black Adam, has the kind of ability to connect with audiences that Verbinski displayed. From horror films to Liam Neeson-led action films, Collet-Serra has displayed the kind of cross-genre abilities that audiences seem to want for their modern-day blockbusters. I’d argue that one of the reason why superhero movies have become so popular is because they manage to give audiences a bit of everything in true comic book fashion. Perhaps we’re seeing original IP struggle because they are attempting to stay in one lane, and within a single tone. Jungle Cruise, even in the brief flashes of the trailer, looks to straddle the lines of swashbuckling adventure, buddy comedy and horror — all aspects that made Pirates land, and does so without superheroes. As popular as superhero movies have become and as great as many of them are, there is a desire for something else to populate the summer movie season, something I think accounts for the billion-dollar successes of the Jurassic World and Fast & Furious series.

Financially, Disney didn’t need to make Jungle Cruise, and that may be what makes it so exciting. It feels like a breath of fresh air, a throwback not just to the pulp fiction of the 20th century but the blockbusters of the early 2000s when high concepts, big names and filmmakers with a vision still had a chance to launch a new franchise without the weight of a cinematic universe or the expectations of fandom. We’ve been down this river before, and there’s more competition now than ever at the box office, but if we’re lucky, Jungle Cruise could chart a path for Disney to start taking a few more chances outside of their guaranteed money-makers.