If a movie is going to be derivative, it may as well go all out and be outrageous about it, as long as the result is as much fun as Jungle Cruise, Disney’s new shameless, live-action theme park tie-in, starring Dwayne Johnson (formerly The Rock) and Emily Blunt. Yes, Jungle Cruise is based on the Disney theme park ride that everyone remembers loving as a kid, much like another Disney film franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean, was. Similarities between those two films don’t end there, as Jungle Cruise borrows more than a little from those family-friendly pirate blockbusters, as it does a plethora of other films, including The African Queen, The Mummy, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, just to name a few. But, again, this film is definitely not one for the overthinkers out there. It is as Disney as a movie can be, as well as everything you expect and hope it to be. It may not be perfect, but the (not too young) kids will love it and the adults will totally enjoy rolling their eyes.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra has packed a LOT into its 2+ hour running time, but Jungle Cruise moves so quickly through all of it that it only feels too long in the last fifteen minutes. It begins by setting the scene of our two main characters. Lily (Blunt) is a scientist in London, but, with it being London during the Great War, her contributions are not taken seriously, so she has her doofus brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) present her request to the scientific society to go in search of the mythical Tree of Life, which is supposed to exist in the deepest recesses of the Amazonian jungle. True scientists are skeptical about funding a search for something that lives only in ghost stories, so Lily decides to embark on the journey by herself, with MacGregor along for the ride. When in the Amazon, she needs a river guide, and stumbles across Frank (Johnson), a seemingly capable riverboat captain (with the ever-present Captain & Tenille hat to prove it) whom she hires to take her to her elusive treasure.
The story, written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa and Michael Green, gets much more complicated, with an over-written backstory about Spanish conquistadors, led by the marauder Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who, because of a curse laid upon them when they tried to get to the Tree of Life centuries earlier, are still trapped in the Amazon, and whose ghosts are released when Lily gets close to its location. Also thrown into the mix is a German villain, of course, played to usual perfection by Jesse Plemons, who believes German victory in the war will be assured if he is the one to get his hands on the magical powers the Tree possesses, so he pursues Lily, whom he believes knows where to find it.
There is just way too much plot here and the movie is overall about twenty minutes longer than it needs to be, but it really is all just so much fun, you hardly notice. Johnson and Blunt do have great chemistry together, but it’s their individual affability that makes everything work so well. Each actor has a casual sense of ease about them, and they make everything look so effortless, which results in a cinematic experience that is wholly unrealistic (no surprise there), but entirely embraceable. Blunt was fully wasted in A Quiet Place Part II, but she’s used to full capacity here, allowing her impossibly charming personality to merge with her natural mischievousness, creating a dynamically appealing screen presence. There’s not much space here for Blunt to show off her serious dramatic chops (which she has), but she’s given free rein to explore every other gift, including and especially the same dry humor which propelled her to stardom in The Devil Wears Prada. While the humor here is far more corny, Blunt takes to it perfectly, as does Johnson, who proves himself to be quite the charmer himself. While my expectations of his acting skills were admittedly low going into Jungle Cruise, I found myself surprisingly impressed with his ability not only to keep up with Blunt, but to be more than just a mound of muscles acting against a CGI jungle.
Speaking of CGI, there’s a lot of it, and most of it is pretty bad. Bad in that it’s obvious, in almost a purposely ridiculous way, making one wonder if it is, in fact, intentional, an over-the-top sense of fantasy possibly designed to heighten interest in the new, redesigned theme park ride that will be based on the movie. In more than a few scenes, I found myself distracted by imagining how cool a scene would look on the new ride, certifying that even I had fallen for the Disney plot, hook, line and sinker.
There are a few things that don’t work as well though, such as Paul Giamatti’s performance as a rival boat owner, which is overly blusterous, and the fact that Emily Blunt spends nearly two hours being chased through the JUNGLE, but never has even a smudge on her perfectly applied makeup or a bit of her coiffed hair out of place. But perhaps the biggest issue I have with Jungle Cruise is the writers’ admirable but ultimately tone-deaf presentation of what can be considered the first significant openly gay character in a Disney film. While MacGregor does turn out to be a noble and heroic character in the end, the fact that he begins by being painted as a wholly incapable, clueless posh who is obsessed with clothes does no favors to erase a stereotype that the LGBTQ+ community has worked for decades to overcome. And the strangest part of all is that, even though MacGregor has a big “coming out” scene, he doesn’t even outrightly come out at all. While I realize this is a kid’s film and the producers may want to tread lightly, it is not a film for very young children (trust me), and the age of child that this film is aimed at should be easily capable of handling a character actually admitting that he’s gay instead of just tiptoeing around it, never actually saying it. What kind of message does that send. This is a Disney family film, and with that comes all the responsibility, power and influence therein, which is why I had hopes they could have done better.
But, even with that disappointment, Jungle Cruise still manages to push every button for a wild, fun, crazy and truly fantastical trip into an adventure that is a joy from start to finish. If you can handle its lack of originality, you will be rewarded with a movie the whole family can enjoy. Just understand that, by watching it, you will automatically be sucked into wanting to buy a ticket to the new and improved Jungle Cruise at your nearest Disney theme park because, after all, it’s truly Disney’s world, and we are, literally, just along for the ride.