Jungle Cruise, the latest Disney theme park ride to be turned into a summer blockbuster, boasts a pair of winning performances from Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson along with a rousing first act that promises a rollicking old-fashioned adventure. Unfortunately, the remainder of the film turns into a slog of a ride down the Amazon.
Blunt stars as Lily Houghton, an adventurer unable to join the ranks of London’s elite in the early 1900s because of her gender; she instead attempts to drum up support for her latest expedition through her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall). When things turn south, Lily steals the artifact she needs for her next journey in a heist sequence that echoes the silent comedy of Harold Lloyd and leaves her dangling from a ladder outside a high-rise window.
Johnson plays Frank Wolff, captain of a rinky-dink steamboat on the Amazon in Brazil who takes tourists on ‘thrilling’ rides that incorporate Rube Goldberg contraptions that activate hidden wildlife dangers and natives hired to portray cannibal headhunters. His opening scene in Jungle Cruise is a nice nod to the actual Disneyland ride, and Johnson tackles the role with the charm of a dedicated park actor really getting into the tour guide character.
Lily, in search of the mystical Tree of Life, finds herself inadvertently negotiating with Frank’s hacky tour guide to take her down the Amazon after mistaking him for the mustache-twirling harbormaster played by Paul Giamatti. A pair of legitimately exciting action sequences later, and the duo are on their way downriver with MacGregor in tow.
At this point, Jungle Cruise has nicely established its central plot and nailed its first four action-adventure sequences. The setup promises an adventure akin to The African Queen, the 1955 John Huston movie that inspired the Disney ride – or at least something on par with 1999’s The Mummy or the first Pirates of the Caribbean film.
Johnson and Blunt may not be Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, but they might be as close as we’ll get in 2021, and both fully commit to their roles as we settle into a thrilling adventure with our characters battling the elements and the jungle as they search for the fountain of youth.
But Jungle Cruise never follows through with that promise. Outside of a brisk trip down the rapids, nature is never really a threat here; a ferocious tiger named Proxima is merely Frank’s sidekick, deadly piranha are dinner for our heroes, and venomous snakes just slither around menacingly.
Instead, the real threat here is German prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), hot on Lily’s trail down the Amazon in a submarine (!) while seeking the Tree of Life in order to win the first World War… somehow.
Joachim manages to get together with the living ghost of real-life Spanish conquistador Lope de Aguirre (played by Édgar Ramírez) and his cohorts, trapped in the jungle for centuries after trying to get to the Tree of Life through violence and ending up with an immortal curse.
And while Jungle Cruise could have been a thrilling adventure that implements the inherent dangers of the jungle, it instead drowns in backstory while attempting to explain its laborious narrative and get all of the characters together at all the right moments. Ramírez is fun as the conquistador in initial scenes that recall Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, but through the remainder of the film he’s barely visible through vines and snakes and a darkened lens that attempts to hide extensive CGI work.
While Jungle Cruise’s opening scenes of action and adventure are a vivid, brightly-lit spectacle, darkness sets in quickly and much of the second half of the movie takes place at night, underwater, or in dimly-lit caves.
It’s an odd choice, too, for Jungle Cruise to have us rooting for a hero searching for the actual Tree of Life; we’re supposed to get behind Blunt’s character due to her altruistic intent, while rooting against the cartoonishly evil others. But once the tree is discovered, it would seem to spell a large consequence for humanity no matter who is first to find it.
Characters in search of immortality are usually presented as tragic figures, as in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, but Jungle Cruise wants to combine that search with a lighthearted adventure a la The Mummy. For a more adult, and far better, take on a similar story, see James Gray’s underrated The Lost City of Z.
As much of a downer as this film turns into during its second half, however, the charismatic lead turns, rich set design, and general sense of adventure help keep it afloat. While Jungle Cruise never reaches the heights of the better (earlier) Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it isn’t The Country Bears or The Haunted Mansion, either.