Jungle Cruise – Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. Written by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa. Starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Edgar Ramirez, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcon, Dani Rovira, Quim Guitierrez, Andy Nyman
**1/2 out of ****
Making movies out of theme park attractions has been a long business for Disney – and one with mixed results. Before Jungle Cruise, they hit pay dirt with the Pirates of the Caribbean series – which overshadowed the long list of failures based on Country Bear Jamboree, Mission to Mars, and Haunted Mansion. This new summer release – delayed like so many others for a year – seemed to have more in common with the former, having a big budget high-adventure plot and some huge stars. It was also based on a truly beloved Disney attraction – albeit one more known for its skippers’ cheesy jokes and its dated animatronics as opposed to the ride itself.
Jungle Cruise is easily the most successful Disney ride spin-off since the Pirates set sail – although that’s an extremely low bar – but it also owes every bit of its success to that movie in more ways than one. It’s oddly similar to that series and to another – the popular Brendan Fraser-led reboot of The Mummy. Both share the same free-wheeling adventure retro tone, and have several similar character archetype. Beyond that, though, the plots start to seem very similar – so much that it’s less a comforting familiarity than a sense of deja vu.
Jungle Cruise finds its lead in Emily Blunt, playing the brash Dr. Lily Houghton. A brilliant young botanist unfairly excluded from the scientific community in 1916 Britain due to her gender, she’s left to rely on her camp-gay brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to make speeches for her while she skulks around museums looking for clues to the location of a mysterious tree that can cure any ill. After a chaotic action scene set in a secret library in which Blunt uses a ladder as a weapon, she and MacGregor are off to the Amazon – to a deep part of the jungle that is only accessible by boat.
So naturally, they’ll need a boat. Enter Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a barely competent skipper who ekes out a living giving mostly staged tours on his ramshackle tug. He’s deep in debt to Nilo (Paul Giamatti), an arrogant harbormaster who owns just about every boat on the Amazon river besides Frank’s. Nilo really isn’t doing anything wrong and Frank does owe him money he has no intention of repaying, so it’s not clear why we’re supposed to root against him besides the fact that Frank is played by Dwayne Johnson. When Lily and MacGregor enter the harbor, Frank sees some deep pockets and a way out of debt – so he’s determined to get them to hire him, no matter what cons he has to pull.
Of course, they’re not the only people in search of the tree. This film has a lot of villains, to the point of almost being overloaded with them. Nilo is just a minor annoyance, but the same can’t be said for Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a mad German aristocrat (and real historical figure) who pursues Emily and MacGregor in a surprisingly maneuverable submarine that surfaces for ridiculous action scenes. Plemons is hilariously over-the-top and adds most of this movie’s best comedy, albeit mostly unintentional. The same can’t be said for the other main villain – Aguirre, an undead Spanish conquistador cursed for his pursuit of the tree (and some minor genocide, no big) along with the rest of his men. Freed from eternal imprisonment, they return as undead monster warriors who are fused with various substances of the jungle including snakes, mud, beehives, or vines. If that sounds exactly like a combination of the ghost pirates of the first Pirates movie and the deep-sea mutant pirates of the second…that’s because it is.
The plot of this movie is functional at best, but it gets most of its enjoyment out of its lead actors. Johnson may be a bit overexposed as an action star, but it’s good to see him play a lighter, more morally ambiguous character. Frank is a very large goofball trapped in an action movie, even though the movie lays his “Rogue with a heart of gold” character traits on a little thick. Blunt is playing the character she does best – flinty, competent woman surrounded by less competent men. She and Johnson have a very similar dynamic to classic films like The African Queen, but while I liked both characters individually, I thought their romantic dynamic may have been a bit rushed.
Whitehall’s character got a lot of attention for being the first openly gay main character in a Disney film (for the seventh time, if you ask some people). I did think he was one of the funniest parts of the movie, but while it’s good to see some gay representation in a major studio release, he’s also a bit of a stereotype straight out of 1997. The effete gay man who loves the finer things in life and loses his mind when out in the wilderness is a bit of a hoary old trope, but the movie did a good job of getting him slightly out of that box. If only slightly. Minor supporting characters like Veronica Falcon’s scheming native trader add some fun, and a jaguar that makes repeated appearances will likely be a fan favorite.
Ultimately, though, Jungle Cruise fails one major test – its central conflict isn’t nearly as compelling as it wants to be. Everyone is racing towards the supposed site of the tree, and the action-packed climax channels just about every supernatural adventure movie imaginable. It has some fantastic visuals, but it also very much feels like a CGI recreation of better films. There is a massive twist midway through the movie about one of the main characters, and it’s treading on some tricky ground. It handles it well, but once it happens there was virtually no doubt in my mind about how the main plot would pan out. And I was right.
The one thing I was wrong about? As soon as Aguirre and his henchmen appeared, I was actually starting to wonder if this would turn out to be a stealth spin-off from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. That’s how similar the curse was. Alas, no Orlando Bloom cameos. But hey, Disney proved that they can make a second watchable movie out of a theme park attraction, if not much more. Onward to the Tower of Terror, I guess.