There was a plan (probably) in the minds of Disney execs for a vast sprawling film empire based on Disney rides. They kind of started it off with Tower of Terror and then they made Pirates of the Caribbean and it took off so they just sort of ran with it and kept making big-budget movies of other rides (Tomorrowland doesn’t count). But with Pirates pretty much done the studio has come back with a new ride adaptation: Jungle Cruise.
Jungle Cruise, as the title suggests, is the movie based on the same ride, in which one takes a cruise through a jungle of animatronic animals and unfortunate stereotypes of natives. It is also, an old-school adventure film of the ilk we don’t see much more, with swinging from vines, deadly traps, and a love story. It is also a film carried almost entirely on the back of the charm of its stars. Luckily, Dwayne Johnson has a really big back.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Release Date: July 30, 2021 (Theatrical and Diseny+)
Think old school. That’s what you have to do with Jungle Cruise. The film is an old school, by the numbers, adventure film. We find Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), attempting to discover the Tree of Life. This mythic tree is said to be hidden deep in the Amazon but Lily has just stolen an arrowhead that is said to show where. She winds up hiring Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a jungle cruise operator on the Amazon, to take her down the river and find the tree. Unfortunately, they’re being chased by both undead conquistadores and an evil German prince played by Jesse Plemons. It’s basically Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean had a movie baby.
That comparison is quite apt as Jungle Cruise feels like a truly old-school adventure film, more interested in high-flying stunts, action, and danger than logic. And, for the most part, it really works. The film is just fun to watch with action set pieces that hold together and enough to keep the MacGuffin of a plot going forward. Frank drives an incredibly overpowered boat, there’s a lot of anachronisms (especially in language), and there are some slow points but it all works together. This is a movie that knows its adventure and, more importantly, director Jaume Collet-Serra can hold it together, competently (a rare thing) directing the action into exciting set pieces.
The movie even does a decent job of having its cake and eating it too by playing into “native” stereotypes and then subverting them. It’s not a perfect solution but it allows the movie to have the poison blow darts and headdresses of classic adventure films without being incredibly insulting. It even has an openly gay character, who evolves and is more than a punchline through the film, flipping the trope of adventure movies that signaled LGBTQ characters but always relegating them to effeminate cowards or punchlines.
Still, fun is the word here, not perfect or groundbreaking, but fun. A lot of that simply comes from the film’s stars. Blunt and Johnson are both incredible onscreen talents and their overwhelming charm pulls almost everything off. Frank, for instance, is a lover of bad jokes and puns and if it wasn’t Johnson spewing them it would probably have been just a mess. Instead, you can’t help but enjoy it. He and Blunt are, in fact, so good together that you forget that Johnson is pretty horribly miscast for the role, as he hulks around nearly tearing out of his costumes and practically busting out of the tiny boat most of the film is set on.
Probably the most tenuous aspect of the film is the love story between Frank and Lily. It is, frankly (pun intended), as cliche as they come. The stoic, independent woman falls in love with the charming, but aloof man on an adventure through the Amazon. If the rest of the film weren’t so tongue-in-cheek and enjoyable it would be groan-inducing. However, Jungle Cruise plays so earnestly into its adventure film tropes and is so aware of what it is that the love story almost feels refreshing in its simplicity.
Jungle Cruise is a film that relies on its stars and is all the better for it. However, it also does a surprising job of feeling like a classic adventure film, in all their simplicity, while avoiding the many issues those films had by actively adapting them. I may be giving the movie a bit too much credit but it stood out to me. You can just go in and enjoy a submarine trying to blow up a tiny ship in the middle of the Amazon, though.