I was in the audience at the Walt Disney Studios panel at the D23 Expo in 2019 when some of the first footage from “Jungle Cruise”—an adventure film based on the Disney Parks attraction of the same name—was premiered. But it was less the trailers themselves that made an impact, and more the surprising and immediately obvious chemistry between stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, who rode out on stage in a boat and a car, respectively, and poked jabs at each other while introducing opposing trailers focused on each of their characters. The fun back-and-fourth that they exhibited that day is just as prevalent in the actual movie; in fact, it’s the best part of “Jungle Cruise,” which really only starts to go off the rails when it deviates from that central relationship.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Jungle Cruise” opens with a legend: in the 16th century, a conquistador named Don Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez) travels with his men to South America in search of the Tears of the Moon, a tree whose petals can supposedly cure any injury or illness. When a local tribe who helps them refuses to tell them the location of the tree, Aguirre and his men attack them, prompting the tribe’s chief to place a curse on them: they will never die, and will never be able to leave sight of the river, or they will become a part of the jungle forever.
The story then jumps to 1916, where adventurous botanist Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her less than enthusiastic brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) journey from London to South America, where she hopes to charter a boat to take them down the Amazon River to the supposedly location of the Tears of the Moon, the petals of which Lily wants to study so she can use their healing properties to help others. A series of misunderstandings introduces Lily to Frank (Dwayne Johnson), the skipper of a rundown boat that he uses to give river cruises to tourists. Frank—who despite his initially uninterested attitude also has a stake in finding the Tears of the Moon—offers to take Lily and MacGregor there, but all the while they are pursued by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German aristocrat who finances a military expedition to obtain the petals for himself.
Similar to Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” (at least the first movie), “Jungle Cruise” crafts a new story around the ride it is based on, but also contains plenty of nods to its inspiration that manage to fit in nicely with the rest of the movie and will surely delight Disney Parks fans. The most apparent of these is when we first meet Frank, on his boat, giving a tour to some rather alarmed passengers. If you’ve never been on any of Disney’s Jungle Cruise rides, it involves a river boat cruise set in the South American jungle. There are animatronic animals and other “dangers” to be found along the way, but the attraction (one of the original ones from Disneyland’s 1955 opening) is perhaps most well-known and beloved for the corny jokes the boat skippers tell as they narrate their journey for the guests. Some of those very same jokes and gags are present in the spiel Frank gives his passengers, who groan in annoyance. There are a few other references sprinkled throughout the film as well, most notably the character of Trader Sam, a character from the ride who is played here by Veronica Falcón. The general design of some of the film is also very reminiscent of the Jungle Cruise queue, such as the office of Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti, whose appearance here is just as random as the accent he employs), the harbormaster who manages the port where Frank docks his boat. But as the movie progresses, it starts to become more of its own thing (and thankfully doesn’t over-do it on the cheesy jokes, even if it does over-do it on the number of times that Frank brings up the fact that Lily wears pants).
Blunt fits her Indiana Jones-esque character like a glove, imbuing her with an adventurous spirit but also empathy for those around her. Her reasons for searching for the Tears of the Moon, after all, are so she can use it to help others. Johnson, more movie star than actor, plays a version of the kind of character we’re used to seeing from him, which means that he is amusing and likeable and beats a lot of people up. The contentiousness in the relationship between Lily and Frank that is present from the get-go is fun to watch, especially because it is peppered throughout by scenes where we glimpse a genuine friendship blossoming between them. Whitehall’s MacGregor is a fun addition to the group, and he is has good comedic timing, but the way the movie places a gay character in a fish-out-of-water situation to get laughs is a bit irritating. At the same time, in a heartfelt conversation between MacGregor and Frank, the film acknowledges the former’s identity more explicitly than I expected them to. The real scene-stealer, though, is Plemons, whose camp performance as one of the villains is more humorous than dastardly, but he’s a delight and, like the rest of the cast, seems to be having the time of his life.
“Jungle Cruise” feels like a throwback to the sort of family adventure movie that isn’t often made anymore, both in terms of style and substance—think along the lines of something like 1951’s “The African Queen” or 1999’s “The Mummy,” which boasted similar character dynamics, supernatural beings, mythical treasures, and an equal sense of fun and adventure. Some of the shots in “Jungle Cruise” are really beautifully lighted and staged, not so much in a realistic way but with a sheen of phoniness whose warm light and bright colors almost harken back to the even older Technicolor adventure films of the late 1930s and 1940s. But the scenes that rely more heavily on computer effects are much less eye-catching, mostly because some of the CGI is so clunky, especially when it comes to the animal characters. Meanwhile, Collet-Serra, whose previous credits include several Liam Neeson-led action thrillers like “Non-Stop” and “Run All Night,” successfully brings his eye for the genre to some of the more action-heavy scenes in this movie. From swinging from trees to narrowly avoiding going down a waterfall, the action is energetic and nicely paced (except for an early sequence in which it takes the gang a remarkably long time just to make it out of the harbor). Even if it is full of tropes, for this sort of B-movie throwback, it’s appropriate.
But for all the things that work about “Jungle Cruise,” it’s clear as the film progresses that is taking on a little too much. As great an addition as Plemons is, his character doesn’t feel entirely integral to the story, especially when you throw Ramírez’s Aguirre into the mix, and there’s an odd twist toward the end that I’m still not 100% sold on. The plot isn’t overly-complicated, but there is just enough going on to start to take away from some of that magic established at the beginning. Still, “Jungle Cruise” is overall a ton of escapist fun, so much so that I can see it holding up on future rewatches—even if a lot of its success can be attributed to its leads.
“Jungle Cruise” is now playing in theaters and is available to watch on Disney Plus with Premier Access. Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated PG-13.