Posted on Tuesday, July 27th, 2021 by
Considering its own inspiration, it’s somewhat surprising that the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland took so long to become the inspiration for a movie of its own. The opening-day attraction was partially inspired by the 1951 romantic comedy/adventure The African Queen, bringing two of the greatest stars of the era, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, together. So now, things have come as full circle as is humanly possible with Jungle Cruise, a romantic comedy/adventure that brings together two big enough stars of the 21st century, Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.
On one hand, Jungle Cruise is one of the more effective live-action films Disney’s made in a while. On the other, its many cinematic inspirations are hard to ignore, and much, much better than this.
Blunt stars as Dr. Lily Houghton, a botanist on the hunt for the fabled Tears of the Moon, which are said to cure any and all sicknesses. Lily and her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) are laughed at throughout all of England, but Lily’s determination leads to her absconding away with a clue before a strange German royal (Jesse Plemons) can get his hands on it. Lily and McGregor head to Brazil, where they pair up with the salty skipper Frank (Johnson), who has his own reasons for being interested in shepherding Lily and McGregor in their quest for the Tears of the Moon. Those reasons come clear well after we first see Frank in action, giving Johnson a chance to trot out a large swath of jokes anyone who’s taken a trip on the Jungle Cruise at the Disney theme parks will recognize. Yes, everything from the backside of water to puns about beheading make their way into the script (though some of the cast groaning isn’t quite matched by Johnson’s mild delivery).
For anyone over the age of, say, 10, it will be difficult to watch Jungle Cruise without thinking of a number of other, more enjoyable adventures. Yes, of course, there’s The African Queen and its lead actors whose chemistry starts grumpy but turns lovable by the end. But Jungle Cruise feels also like the answer to the question, “What if the 1999 adaptation of The Mummy, but in the water instead of in sandy dunes?” (And of course, The Mummy was the answer to the question, “What if Indiana Jones, but with Brendan Fraser?” The answer to that question was, “It was awesome.”) And various plot twists also draw inspiration, intentional or otherwise, from the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies, with their epic scope, elaborate CG, and unexpected character beats.
Perhaps the script, credited to Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is wearing every single reference on its sleeve. One of the film’s villains, portrayed by Edgar Ramirez, is a centuries-old conquistador named Aguirre, somewhat like the real Aguirre of Spanish legend, brought to life in a Werner Herzog film. I mention that because Jesse Plemons seems to have taken the challenge of playing the heavy in a Disney movie by attempting to mold his voice into a blend of Herzog and Christoph Waltz. (Plemons is the film’s highlight.) Whether the references are meant to be noticeable, they are inescapable and often to the detriment of Jungle Cruise. It’s not that this movie is bad. It’s fine. It’s decent. But so many of the films it’s riffing on are much better.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra does a solid job, at least in terms of impersonating a bit of Steven Spielberg and Gore Verbinski. There’s an immense amount, or what feels like an immense amount, of CG in Jungle Cruise, sometimes even in the simplest possible shots. (Maybe it’s a natural progression of technology that a theme-park ride full of Audio-Animatronic animals has led to a major motion picture wall to wall with CG animals.) Computer technology is a necessity for a lot of modern blockbusters, but the drawback is when the real people visible in any given shot highlight how unreal that tech is. There’s a sadly high number of moments in Jungle Cruise that emphasize how unreal the story is. You can only suspend your disbelief for so long if the technology keeps reminding you why you have to suspend your disbelief in the first place.
It’s a shame, too, because the story surrounding the CG is charming enough. Johnson and Blunt make for an agreeable pair, and they’re well matched by Plemons and Ramirez. (Paul Giamatti shows up in the early going as Frank’s exhausted and hapless benefactor, doing the usual that you expect of Paul Giamatti: being given little material and elevating it simply by dint of his endless talent.) A good deal was made during the production that Whitehall’s character would have a coming-out scene, and while that much is true, it’s just as maddeningly, foolishly vague as past gay characters in Disney films, from LeFou in the awful Beauty and the Beast remake to the brief same-sex embrace at the end of The Rise of Skywalker. Is McGregor gay? Yes. Is his sexuality remotely important to the film, or woven into the story naturally? No. Disney continues to need to do better.
Jungle Cruise is, on the whole, not quite as enjoyable as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and of course nowhere near as good as the Indiana Jones franchise or even The Mummy, partly because it is entirely unable to shake loose of those reference points. But it’s still a solid summer action film, or at least a solid enough entry for this specific summer. There have only been so many theatrically released films inspired by theme-park attractions, instead of the other way around. Mercifully, this is on the higher end of the spectrum, light-years away from the Eddie Murphy/Haunted Mansion vehicle. But it’s kind of disappointing that Jungle Cruise leans so far into its inspirations, making it so there’s no daylight between it and what pushed it into being.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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About the Author
Josh Spiegel is a Phoenix-based critic & writer. He’s one of the hosts of Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast about Disney films. He’s also written a book of criticism on Pixar, titled Yesterday is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios.