Jungle Cruise is suitable enough as a summer diversion.
Published on August 3, 2021
Rating 3.5 /5
Jungle Cruise comes about as advertised, reaping the iconic Disney theme park attraction and transforming it into a rousing adventure picture. It is a return to a formula that hasn’t been tapped since the stumblings preachiness of Tomorrowland and the rusting gears of Pirates of the Caribbean. This latest take on shoving a ride onto the big screen, however, proves to be quite fun for the low bar it sets.
The story is your standard MacGuffin hunting formula. Deep in the Amazon jungle lies the mythical Tree of Life, said to hold the keys to immense healing qualities. It was once sought by the Spanish soldier Aguirre but he would not return. Seeking to make the journey in the early 20th century is Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a botanist ready to go for a fantastic adventure of new discoveries. Not as keen to her troublemaking ways is her cautious brother MacGregor Houghton (Jake Whitehall), sweating bullets as she defies an archeology agency and dives face-first into dangerous territory.
Armed with a key piece of the puzzle, Lily and MacGregor take off for the jungle and traverse a harbor to find the right ship captain for the adventure. An unlikely skipper comes in the form of Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a swindler of a captain who makes his money through staged tours. Less money comes, however, from his cornball jokes that are far worse to bear than his staged cruise events or his scammy deal with the natives. Even with all of these tricks, he’s still behind on payments for the shrewd harbormaster, played with exceptional exuberance by Paul Giamatti donning a white suit and parrot that keeps stating how Frank owes money. Of course, Frank also has his own animal companion in the form of a leopard who shows up late but still gets him out of trouble.
The trio of Lily, MacGregor, and Frank are not the only ones coursing through the jungle to find this mystical tree. One of the first to seek out the tree is the German aristocrat Prince Joachim, played with a mustache and stern cockiness by Jesse Plemons. Joachim goes big when he goes after seeking mystical legends, taking care to bring a submarine on his jungle hunt. His intent is pretty simple; use the tree for the good of the Germans during World War I. Finding that tree, however, leads to him unearthing Aguirre, now transformed into a cursed zombie of snakes with his regiment also being bound by nature via a tribal curse. It sounds very much in Disney’s wheelhouse to take the legend of Aguirre and have snakes some out of his face.
This is a picture where it’s more unique for the polish than originality. If you’re not big on treasure-hunting MacGuffin pictures, there’s little here to convert you out of the standard tropes. There are daring maneuvers around rapids, rousing chases across harbors, and skirmishes with CGI-heavy zombies. Puzzles are solved and magic is revealed from deep within the dark corners of the jungle. If this all sounds familiar, you’ve no doubt seen these conventions wielded before.
But that’s not where the strength in the picture lies. It is thanks to the electric chemistry between Johnson and Blunt that the picture becomes a romp. Their comedic and touching exchanges are fast-paced and brimming with a charm that is hard to resist. Whitehall’s character also gets his moments to shine, eventually cracking some of those sissy shackles he enters the picture with. Plemons is a treat with how he blisters and argues with the zombies he associates with. Also, Giamatti is just a hoot with his swagger and a bird on his shoulder.
Jungle Cruise is suitable enough as a summer diversion. It ticks all the right boxes and manages to pull out a thrilling adventure with gusto. The film isn’t perfect, though, as it features more of that trademark Disney progressivism that does more crawling than trailblazing with how Blunt’s character wears pants or how Whitehall’s character tries to say he is gay without using that exact language. But for being little more than a jungle adventure, there’s just enough steam in this rickety old ship to carry a voyage.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.