Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Rampage), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns), Edgar Ramírez (Deliver Us from Evil), Jack Whitehall (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Jesse Plemons (Game Night), Paul Giamatti (Sideways)
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra (The Commuter)
Writers: Michael Green (Logan) and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris)
Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes
Release Date: 30th July (US, UK, Disney+)
Ever since Pirates of the Caribbean became a surprise hit back in 2003, Disney have tried multiple times to strike that same gold again to mostly unsatisfying results. We had The Haunted Mansion, Prince of Persia, The Lone Ranger, the National Treasure movies, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and of course four Pirates sequels, but none ever captured that same blend of adventure, comedy and fantasy quite the same as the Gore Verbinski original. One such project that’s been in development pretty much since the success of The Curse of the Black Pearl was a film version of another classic Disney theme park ride: Jungle Cruise…which has even less to base a movie around. It was no epic plot or iconic characters or even much of a unique setting; it’s just a boat ride full of animatronics and dated references to colonialism. Then again, that lack of concrete source material has given the filmmakers much greater reign to do what they want, and the final result is a dumb fun movie that’s a lot better than it has any right to be.
Beyond the basic concept of a boat journey down a jungle river and some cute lamp-shading references early on, Jungle Cruise is completely its own thing and doesn’t feel the need to be so beholden to the ride. The story is straight out of a classic 1950s movie serial and comes with all the tropes you’d expect from the genre, but it has a more modern edge that keeps it fresh and sets it apart from obvious Indiana Jones comparisons. Along with Pirates of the Caribbean, 1999’s The Mummy is an obvious reference point for the kind of tone and spirit it’s going for, especially in how it incorporates fantasy and horror elements into the swashbuckling adventure. For the first two acts, Jungle Cruise is pretty content to paddle along and play the beats you’d expect, but it does so with such exuberance and canny wit that it’s easy to forget how cliché everything is and just have fun.
However, the story takes a firm whip around into uncharted territory with its end of second act reveal, which will either snap you right out of the movie or make you finally fall in love with it despite yourself. It is a genuinely solid twist that changes the stakes and opens up loads of new possibilities, though it unfortunately doesn’t take as much advantage of it as one might like. Unless you’re the kind of person still surprised by the idea of a female scientist, there’s no real hidden depth or themes to speak of in Jungle Cruise, but it’s so obviously not trying to be anything more than what it is: simple blockbuster fluff. It’s well-made, self-aware, and infectiously charming blockbuster fluff, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Its only real flaw (other than being about twenty minutes too long) is that it doesn’t take enough chances. If it really took advantage of the few unique ideas it has, it could have set it apart from its inspirations more rather than just being a solid tribute act to them.
Hollywood at this point is basically letting Dwayne Johnson do anything and everything he wants, but I’ve never seen a role so suited to him and yet so miscast in as Frank Wolff in Jungle Cruise. Johnson excels at two, and only two, things: action and comedy. In those facets, he fits the mould of the dashing adventure serial hero so well that he’s basically a movie poster that wished they were a real boy. He’s as charming and goofy and all-around likable as ever, but this type of role also demands the hero to be a romantic and, sadly, that’s just not in Johnson’s wheelhouse. Emily Blunt is as fantastic as you’d expect her to be in this type of role, even if she is simply stepping into the shoes of Rachel Weisz from The Mummy, and whilst she and Johnson have fantastic comedic chemistry and play off each other well in the action sequences, there is nothing romantic about their relationship other than what the script says. For the longest time, it seemed like the movie was going to skip a romance subplot and it was refreshing to have a mixed-gender duo not fall in love, but then it happens and Johnson simply cannot sell himself as a romantic lead. This kind of role really calls for someone more sensuous and smooth, like Pedro Pascal or 90s-era Antonio Banderas, and Johnson doesn’t have that quality…at least not yet. If he ever does acquire it, then he’ll be truly unstoppable.
In a surprising turn of events, this is easily the least annoying Jack Whitehall has ever been in anything, managing to turn a mostly thankless comic relief character as Blunt’s brother into something a little more evolved. He’s delicate and pompous but he’s not without bravery, getting in on the action by the end and having more of a noticeable character arc than either Johnson or Blunt. As has happened often with recent Disney productions, much has been made of Whitehall’s character being openly gay and, whilst still not a fully realised representation and done in a way easily excisable for homophobic foreign markets, it’s the most tasteful queer character in a Disney movie so far. It’s not some throwaway background gag or an exaggerated caricature defined only by queerness, but a brief and touching character moment that adds much-needed depth to the role, and Whitehall plays it with restraint and even a little pathos. Jungle Cruise also features three villains of varying import, but it seems one of them didn’t get the memo on what kind of movie this is. Whilst Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti are absolutely hamming it up to the gods with ridiculous accents as a moustache-twirling German aristocrat and a money-grubbing Italian harbourmaster respectively, Edgar Ramírez plays it completely straight as undead conquistador Aguirre. It’s a role that demands a performance as high-energy as Geoffrey Rush’s similar antagonist in the Pirates franchise but, even with all of the ripe potential of his character’s backstory and abilities, Ramírez feels as unable to play camp as Johnson is at playing amorous. At least Aguirre’s henchmen understood the assignment and get in on the humour occasionally.
As usual, Disney have spared no expense on Jungle Cruise and their $200 million investment has paid off with a vibrant and impeccable-looking movie…for the most part. More than even the plot and character archetypes, this movie screams adventure so much that it’s essentially a Drew Struzan painting come to life, constantly hitting the audience with saturated colours and joyously-designed iconography. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is pure pulp, brimming with bright, streaming lighting and sweeping camera motions that captures old-fashioned filmmaking style but exaggerated to modern effect. The sets and costumes have that embellished, too-perfect quality of a theme park attraction, but they only add to the heightened reality the film is going for. James Newton Howard’s score is one of the best imitations of John Williams-style fanfare I’ve heard in ages, perfectly accentuating every scene with the right tones of whimsy and excitement, though it somewhat goes off the rails in a sequence detailing Johnson’s backstory by bringing in hard electric guitars out of nowhere. Unfortunately, the film’s major technical shortcoming is its CGI, which the film highly relies on and just isn’t up to snuff most of the time. It’s decent enough when used to create environments or anything unreal, like the various undead afflictions of Aguirre and his minions, but the CG animals are all uniformly bad-looking. This is especially pertinent as Proxima, Frank’s pet jaguar, is a major character throughout the story and, whilst her animation work is decent and she’s an endearing character, she never quite steps out of the uncanny valley.
Jungle Cruise is a welcome throwback to the family adventure movies of the 80s and 90s, and easily the best attempt by Disney to emulate Pirates of the Caribbean‘s success yet. It understands the core appeal of its premise exactly and doubles down on being unabashedly broad, with its main shortcomings coming from trying too hard in some places and not enough in others. Kids will likely be unbothered by these issues and just go along for the ride, but there’s enough humour and camp fun here for parents to enjoy themselves too. It may be the kind of film that you enjoy more whilst watching it but lacks much impact afterwards, but sometimes that’s all you need. Not every movie needs to be a solid gold masterpiece, and Jungle Cruise knows exactly what kind of movie it is. It’s a slightly bloated and messy example of that kind of movie, but it gets away with a lot on pure charm and enthusiasm.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10