Jungle Cruise (2021)
The Adventure of a Lifetime.
Eighteen years ago, Walt Disney Studios proved that it was possible to transform one of their Disneyland theme park rides into a feature film with Gore Verbinski’s hugely entertaining Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003). It became a global box-office hit thanks to its infectious energy and fun swashbuckling tone, the film spawning Johnny Depp’s now-famous Captain Jack Sparrow along with four successful sequels. Fun fact: Pirates was actually the third time the studio had attempted to adapt one of their attractions for the big screen; the first was Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars in 2000 and the second was the down-right terrifying The Country Bears in 2002. Since then, the Mouse House has tried to capture lightning-in-a-bottle twice with several failed attempts to convert another one of their attractions into a film franchise; there was the Eddie Murphy-starring The Haunted Mansion in 2003, released just a few months after the original Pirates, and the generally good Tomorrowland in 2015, which just didn’t take off (why isn’t Britt Robertson a bigger star?).
Although not as good or as memorable as their first Pirates outing, Disney’s latest attempt to squeeze cash out of a theme park ride is Jungle Cruise, an energetic old-fashioned Saturday matinee type adventure that’s part The African Queen (1951) and part Indiana Jones. It cleverly pairs the always-charismatic Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson with a feisty Emily Blunt, their dynamic very much keeping the film afloat. If you’ve never been on the ride (which was launched in the Magic Kingdom in 1955), it’s a rickety little boat cruise through the Amazon that’s pepped up by a guide who churns out silly puns and dad jokes along the way; though cringy, they’re kinda amusing and brighten the whole endeavor. Fortunately, director Jaume Collet-Serra, The Shallows (2016), understands what made the ride so memorable and re-creates this charming tone for the Jungle Cruise feature, mixing action, romance, and humor together while winking at the attraction on which it’s based.
The movie is set in 1916 and follows Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a spirited scientist who’s having a tough time being taken seriously by the male-dominated Royal Society in London. You see, Lily has been trying to convince the board to help her mount an expedition to the Amazon jungle in Brazil to search for the fabled Tears of the Moon, a remarkable flower that is said to hold unbelievable healing abilities. To make the trip, Lily needs an ancient arrowhead artifact that the society is housing in their storeroom, so she sends her effete-yet-devoted brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to distract the organization while she pinches the relic.
From there, the duo makes their way to the small town of Porto Velho in Brazil, where they meet roguish captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson). Frank makes a living by taking prissy tourists on a tacky steamboat tour of the Amazon River, where he fools them with shoddy animal props and shows them such ‘wonders’ as the backside of water. While Frank knows that his run-down vessel, La Quila, is the best in the business, he lacks the funds to keep it above water. Strapped for cash, Frank is in debt to his boss, harbormaster Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), who recently fitted Frank’s vessel with a swanky new engine. When Frank realizes that the affluent Lily and MacGregor are in need of transportation along the river, he swindles them into hiring him for the gig, unaware of Lily’s fierce drive and determination to find the legendary Tears of the Moon.
And so, the threesome ventures off to locate the Tree of Life, unaware of the dangers, both human and supernatural, that surround them. In addition to the natural threats of the wild, the team is being pursued by a ruthless German aristocrat known as Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who believes that the flower will help his people win World War I. To assist him in obtaining it, Joachim frees a troupe of Spanish conquistadors, led by Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), who sought the Tree’s power hundreds of years earlier but were cursed with immortality and trapped in the jungle, their bodies morphed and distorted by the land à la Davy Jones and his army of fish-men.
Embracing the same supernatural action-adventure tone of flicks like Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999) and Verbinski’s Pirates films but without ever reaching the same heights, Jungle Cruise is thrilling, playful, and lively. And although the script by Michael Green, Logan (2017), Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa, Focus (2013), treks a well-traveled route, there are a few unexpected surprises along the way. Part of the film’s success is also owed to the delightful chemistry between Johnson and Blunt, who bounce off one another wonderfully. They share similar banter to that of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz from the first couple of Mummy films. Johnson is particularly great as the pun-loving skipper Frank who truly believes that he’s in charge of the mission, while Blunt, who’s sorta like a female Indiana Jones, is amusing as the fearless Lily. The two are constantly trying to one-up each other in order to prove who’s in command — Frank refers to Lily as ‘pants’ because of her choice in attire, while she calls him ‘skippy’ to mock his authority. Their banter is a lot of fun.
Having directed a bunch of low-to-mid-budget Liam Neeson actioners, filmmaker Collet-Serra continues to demonstrate his effective handle on action as Jungle Cruise features plenty of exciting large-scale set-pieces; a highlight is a loopy sequence where the team must outrun Joachim’s WW1 era submarine in the port town of Porto Velho. There are also snakes, piranhas, and wild rapids, which our heroes must contend with, as well as a ‘cannibal’ tribe that captures the group. While the cinematography by Collet-Serra regular DOP Flavio Martínez Labiano, The Shallows (2016), and the detailed production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos, The Lost City of Z (2016), are top notch, the whole adventure possesses an artificial sheen due to the elaborate sets and a plethora of visual effects, which are a bit hit and miss. While things like the 1916 London backdrop and Frank’s computer-generated tiger (named Proxima) are extremely well done, other FX look a bit goofy and cartoony, mainly the cursed conquistadors, who are made up of various elements such as tree branches, mud, honey, bees, and snakes. And, bar the questionable use of a Metallica riff, the score by James Newton Howard, King Kong (2005), is generally good.
Support players, of which there are many, elevate the material, too. Jack Whitehall, Mother’s Day (2016), is a hoot as Disney’s first openly gay character MacGregor, Lily’s fussy but affable brother. What’s more, moviemakers do a good job in depicting his feelings after making it clear that he’s been ostracized from society because of his sexual orientation. Jesse Plemons, Game Night (2018), literally steals the entire movie as the over-the-top German royal Prince Joachim, his impeccable comic timing proving why he’s such a great character actor — Plemons pulls off a purple velvet suit and even sells a ridiculous scene where he’s ‘chatting’ with a bee. Paul Giamatti, Sideways (2004), brings his usual smug persona to the role of the smarmy businessman Nilo whom Frank owes money, whilst Mexican actress Veronica Falcón leaves an impression in her few scenes as Trader Sam, the leader of a headhunter tribe, a character that also appeared on the Disney ride.
Despite never matching the films it’s emulating, Disney’s Jungle Cruise is a nostalgic 127-minute adventure through the Amazon rainforest that’s fun for the whole family. Note: some scenes may be too frightening for the little ones. Enlivened by Johnson and Blunt’s refreshing interplay, exotic backdrops and a rip-roaring pace, this is a voyage worth taking. Heck, at the very least, it could do for the Amazon what the Pirates films did for the Atlantic.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)