In Brazil, near the start of World War I, Lily, a brilliant scientist (played by Emily Blunt) hires Frank, a gruff riverboat captain (played by Dwayne Johnson), to take her on dangerous journey into the Amazon. Along the way, they encounter piranhas, treacherous terrain and a supernatural force that was not a part of the Disneyland ride this movie is based on.
Disney’s Jungle Cruise is severely over plotted, with too many characters, let alone subplots, for a movie based on a charmingly creaky theme park ride. There are too many villains, a wild second act reveal that is a lot to swallow, a riverboat/submarine gun battle that comes too early, a supernatural angle with villains resembling the sea-crusted undead pirates from the second Jack Sparrow movie and a what-is-he-doing-here turn from Paul Giamatti.
It’s not The African Queen, though, at times, it wants to be. It also wants to be Pirates of the Caribbean but is actually, at certain points, better at imitating the tone and feel of the Indiana Jones film better than most of the wannabes, including The Mummy franchise that gave Johnson his breakthrough film role twenty summers ago.
Johnson hasn’t been this good in a while, dialing back the overused, uber-bro persona that made Hobbs & Shaw (and too many other silly vehicles) a self-parody. The former Scorpion King can act. Rather than simply play a version of himself, he’s not just charming here but kind of soulful. This won’t win him any Oscar attention but, as a longtime fan who’s burnt out from Johnson’s willingness to appear in junk like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Rampage, it’s a nice surprise to see him commit to a character other than The Rock. Blunt is excellent, though the real news is that she and Johnson have potent chemistry. Again, we’re not talking Bogey and Hepburn but the two are wonderful here. If anything, the give and take between the smart and stubborn newbie versus the seasoned but narcissistic seaman resembles Johnson’s great rapport with Auli’i Cravalho in Moana.
Jesse Plemons gamely plays the film’s most ridiculous role (it feels like a different, far dopier movie whenever the focus turns to his German submarine captain) and Edgar Ramirez deserves so much better than what he’s given here (the riveting star of Carlos needs an agent who will steer him away from roles like this and the Point Break remake).
Jack Whitehall plays MacGregor, Lily’s brother and assistant who, the film tells us in the most genteel way possible, is gay. I liked the one-on-one conversation MacGregor shares with Frank about why he’s so loyal to his sister. Otherwise, its tiresome how Disney continues to inch towards making films with gay characters and only deal with them sheepishly (like the infamous “gay moment” in the banal Beauty and the Beast remake). It’s 2021 and MacGregor, who would be a mild character in a 1960’s comedy, is Disney’s latest, benign attempt to be progressive, while wanting to offend and challenge absolutely no one.
Oddly enough, Jungle Cruise also wants to wallow in gay stereotypes and tribal stereotypes while subverting those stereotypes at the same time. It’s too much for this movie. Next time, either make MacGregor the star (Whitehall can clearly carry a movie), deal openly and proudly with who he is or just forget it.
Meanwhile, it also wants Lily to be a strong willed, empowered woman, though sometimes she acts like she’s right off The Perils of Pauline and needs Johnson to save her. Blunt’s performance goers a long way to making the character work.
Like the stacks of massive luggage that threaten to overturn the river boat before getting tossed into the drink early on, there’s too much here for a movie that has enough chemistry from its leads to sustain itself (again, why is Giamatti in this?).
Despite a screenplay that needed a severe edit, Jungle Cruise is constantly better than expected and that is due to the director as much as the leads. Jaume Collet-Serra, who made Non-Stop and The Shallows, is a skillful action filmmaker who keeps the momentum going and can stage impressive set pieces (like a knuckle clutching struggle to avoid going over a waterfall). There’s also a great underwater kiss and a priceless bit involving the proceedings being made into a silent film. There’s CGI overkill in the third act and piles of scary CGI snakes that make this an iffy bet for small kids. Older children should dig it, particularly the great supporting turn from a digital jaguar (among the film’s best, most persuasive special effects).
The portion of the movie that recreates the cornball ride at Disney parks comes early and the movie is happy to race past it. The idea of a franchise building off from this seems forced, if only because this ends things without any urgency for a sequel or even a faint set-up for another installment. It took years for this finally make it to the big screen and, I’m happy to report, this is easily one of the most enjoyable films of the summer.