Disney’s Jungle Cruise Is An Enjoyable, Familiar Ride (Movie Review)

Disney’s latest theme park ride-turned-potential blockbuster, Jungle Cruise, stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt as two people who board a man-made contraption and mostly bicker as astounding sights and sounds are just out of reach. As a cinematic version of what it’s like to go through “It’s A Small World After,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” and, yes, “Jungle Cruise,” this is as a close as we’re probably gonna get to a plot that mirrors what guests of the Happiest Place on Earth actually do while experiencing said attractions. Plus, having terrific chemistry between these co-stars beats whomever you had to sit next to when you were on those rides, right? All aboard, then!

The year is 1916, right before the War to End All Wars, and Lily Houghton (Blunt) cares little for politics. She does, however, have her late father’s sense of adventure and her own sense of justice. Lily’s hope is to merge the two. Her father once spoke of a legendary arrowhead that will lead to the fabled Tears of the Moon. These “tears” are actually petals from a tree that, according to legend, can heal all ailments. Lily figures this can be the catalyst to cure all sorts of world-gripping problems. Equipped with wit and skills, she steals the arrowhead from a few snooty English blowhards and sets off to the jungle. Along with her tag-a-long brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), they hire Frank (Johnson), a boat captain who is low on truth but high on bravery. This skipper of a ramshackle tour boat will take them down the river and, at each stop, deliver intentionally bad puns at no extra charge. Meanwhile, our heroes will need to battle evil on two fronts: a snarky German officer (Jesse Plemmons) and a bunch of undead CG monstrosities led by a Spanish mercenary (Edgar Rameriz).

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) has assembled a strong cast for this throwback to matinee adventure films. Collet-Serra wisely knows big colorful, set-piece driven spectacles work better the less real they feel. Not just because it’s based on the Disney ride but because Hollywood has a long-established history of reveling in fakeness. No one cares if a ginormous submarine doesn’t convince the eye. The spirit of such an enterprise is more important. When said submarine careens into a dock making the eyes of an overly dressed Paul Giamatti bug out, that’s more than enough. What this film needed was a director that keeps the proverbial and literal boat chugging down the river. On that level, this trip is on time and running smoothly. Still, one would have hoped an endeavor sporting such a strong cast and a big budget would be filled with more unforgettable moments (the submarine scene with Giamatti is not that).

On the plus side, Blunt and Johnson are clearly having a ball doing a modern-day send-up of classic Hollywood pairings, most notably, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn from John Houston’s The African Queen. The updates to “uptight rich woman meets low-class man” works better than expected. Lily is more than capable of punching out baddies, yet Blunt (and the script) give her just enough debits to justify a guide like Johnson’s Frank. One includes Lilly’s inability to swim, despite being on a river voyage. That sounds lame but actually leads to the film’s best action set piece.

There’s a running gag about Lily being referred to by nearly every man as “the woman with pants” that surprisingly doesn’t wear out its welcome. That’s entirely because of how well Blunt can verbally and physically spar against everyone else. Lily is an engaging modern woman who even gets to have a conversation with the film’s only other female character, and refreshingly, it’s not about a man. Thus, the Bechdel test for Jungle Cruise is unlocked.

Dwayne Johnson is also doing good work. I’m often pleasantly surprised at how well Johnson’s macho dude persona gets balanced with sensitivity and confidence. He always comes to play, and it’s delightful to see his Frank match wits with Lily as well as get chummy with a pet jaguar. A sequel with these two, à la The Mummy Returns, could totally work, but please leave the annoying kid out of it.

While I did say that a sense of realness is by no means a requirement for a rip-roaring time, I wish there was more logic to the action. Too many times kicks and explosions occur without much build-up. One scene, in particular, has our heroes in dire need of an escape when presto! a boat appears, dropping everyone down to the sea so they can make a quick getaway. It’s a cool enough sequence in concept, but without proper execution, I’m more concerned with “what just happened?” than I am caught up in the moment.

The villains also are only half good. From my POV, any film or show is better if Plemmons shows up. Here he’s genuinely funny as a kind of silly take on Raiders of the Lost Ark’s infamous “you’re fire is dying!!” Toht. Plemmons revels in any opportunity to play up his very board German accent. And his tacky red military wear is a goofy kind of perfect. On the other hand, Hollywood still can’t seem to find the right fit for the talented Edgar Rameriz. Here he’s essentially Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa from the Pirates series. He even has a solid back story, but Rameriz’s performance gets lost in the all the gooey effects work.

Small setbacks aside, Jungle Cruise is a solid, if not amazing, old-timey adventure pic featuring a lot of talent where it counts. It’s fair to say I enjoyed the ride.

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