Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt have a grand old time in Disney’s derivative but fun throwback adventure.
The phenomenon of Disney adapting its own theme park rides to the silver screen will never not be fascinating to me. It’s the ultimate act of corporate synergy: watch Disney movies, come to Disneyland to experience them in real life, come ride our rides, then watch the movie based on the rides. What’s even more fascinating are the ones that work: Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean pulled off a minor miracle in adapting a pretty groan-worthy theme park ride into a vibrant, Errol Flynn-like adventure. And in an attempt to recapture that kind of heat, we now have Jungle Cruise, which gets points for referencing the right things, even as it refuses to reinvent the wheel.
Much like Pirates, Jungle Cruise is based on a pretty nondescript ride — travel down the Amazon, gasp at all kinds of animatronic beasties, and let your smarmy, pun-filled skipper show you “the backside of water” (whatever that means). But smartly, screenwriters Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa reverse-engineer that bare-bones concept into an Amazonian adventure of a type with Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone, with a heaping helping of the ’99 Mummy for good measure. (And, of course, the pseudo-fantasy elements of Pirates.)
The year is 1916, and World War I rages. But on the other side of the world lies a mysterious tree of life that will grant immortality and good health to whoever consumes its petals. It’s a quest that adventurous scientist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) eagerly takes on, dragging along her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall, the latest “first gay Disney character” to not really fit the bill).
To aid them on their quest, they hire on cynical tour-boat skipper Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson); together the three dodge waterfalls, treacherous creatures, and a gang of cursed conquistadors led by Edgar Ramirez‘s Don Aguirre (Herzog reference number one). Oh, and there’s also a German aristocrat (Jesse Plemons, also doing his finest Werner Herzog impression) in hot pursuit of them and the tree.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra is hardly known for this kind of big-budget spectacle; he’s typically the steward of the kinds of sleek, mid-budget Liam Neeson actioners that come out every February like clockwork when the man’s bills come due. But he’s a slick technician who knows how to stage an action scene and build a sense of momentum out of increasingly escalated stakes (see: his excellent shark thriller The Shallows). That certainly bears out in Jungle Cruise, at least for the most part. While the action scenes don’t reach the Chaplinesque grace of the Pirates pictures — Johnson is too burly for that kind of finesse — there’s some zippy fun to setpieces like the gang evading Aguirre’s conquistadors or steering their tugboat around a river town to evade Plemons’ U-boat torpedoes.
It’s a little too brightly lit to evoke a great deal of mood, and the compositing could use some work. (It’s hard to see anything but actors hopping around a fuzzy green screen of CGI muck.) The script’s creaky attempts to distance itself from the innate colonialism of the concept — complete with a lampshaded set of ‘noble savage’ characters who are secretly in on Frank’s various cons — could also use a little refinement to avoid feeling like inevitable pandering.
But overall, the actors’ commitment, and Collet-Serra’s sense of escalation, help buoy the sometimes overbaked CG setpieces. (As does James Newton Howard‘s score, which hearkens back to the whirling bombast of Amblin-era John Williams while occasionally taking a break for some deliciously incongruous electric guitar riffs.)
It may not be the most thrilling experience, but it sure goes down easy.
But it’s the central dynamic that helps keep much of Jungle Cruise afloat, particularly Johnson and Blunt, who can do these kinds of roles in their sleep at this point. Johnson has long carved out his niche as a blustering hulk with approachable charm to spare, so it’s nice to see him stretch at least a little bit with his gruff Frank — a man so world-weary it constitutes an honest-to-goodness third-act twist about his character. Johnson doesn’t get many opportunities to show genuine vulnerability these days, but there’s a wryness here that feels different from his typical approach of transplanting his normal WWE persona. It’s still just a spin on his typical output, but those shades are quite welcome.
As for Blunt, she takes to the headstrong adventurer role quite well, as if Rachel Weisz from The Mummy got a little bit of the DNA from Blunt’s Edge of Tomorrow character. She’s confident and wily without it feeling too steeped in ‘girls get it done’ hokiness, and her back-and-forth with Johnson is positively electric. Whitehall gets less to do, saddled in the thankless role of comic relief — especially when Johnson folds that into his action-guy antics organically enough. There’s really little for him to do but tag along and pet Frank’s pet leopard — which would be an innuendo if Disney cared enough about queer people to actually put one in their movies.
But the real treat comes with Plemons’ Prince Joachim, rolling his mouth around those sibilant ‘s’s and clipped consonants while mincing from room to room in one overloaded uniform after another. He’s a petulant child who wields his power like one, and Plemons eats up every centimeter of the screen like it’s coated in delicious honey. It’s such a fun, off-kilter turn that it somehow overshadows Paul Giamatti‘s latest round of Accent Theatre, in a delightful bit part as an Italian-a business-a-man-a to whom Frank owes money.
When we’re introduced to Frank, he’s giving a group of tourists essentially a live version of the theme park ride we remember: the guests ooh and ahh, and groan at the puns, all while Frank effortlessly steers them through the various attractions. How like that boat ride is Jungle Cruise as a whole — a neat little boat ride you can coast through in a couple of hours, shepherded by immensely talented craftsmen who know what they’re doing and don’t challenge you too much. It may not be the most thrilling experience, but it sure goes down easy.
Jungle Cruise cracks puns as deadly as the wilderness in theaters and Disney+ (with Premier Access) starting July 30th.