Disney Studio’s Jungle Cruise, starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, the latest in its series of movies based on a Disney theme park ride was everything I’ve come to expect from the studio’s live-action arm: BIG stars, ASTONISHING sets, GORGEOUS costumes, SOMEWHAT REALISTIC CGI creatures. And if you are looking for those things in a movie, only, you will be thrilled. But if you are looking for more, you may be as disappointed as an adventurous archeologist seeking elusive ancient riches, only to find her treasure map dumps her into a gift shop. It isn’t trash, it’s just not treasure. It is a mish-mash of overly-familiar plot elements and stock characters and it’s only saved from being terrible by the aforementioned Disney-guaranteed money-makers, the charm of its female lead, and one notable performance.
Jungle Cruise takes place during World War I, and opens in England, where we are quickly introduced to the plucky scientist (?) medical researcher (?) Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her dapper yet hapless brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) as she appeals to a society of male colleagues for a chance to examine an ancient artifact that could be the key to tracking down the truth at the heart of legend buried deep in the Amazon jungle. Of course, she must quickly turn to her Plan B when Plan A goes bust and we are hurtled at breakneck speed through an unnecessarily stunt-filled encounter with a German (what else?) bad guy, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons).
It’s no spoiler to say she escapes with the prize and lands in the Amazon, or else there would be no movie. There she meets and eventually hires Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), skipper of a tour boat, to take her and MacGregor down (up?) river. There they encounter various and sundry perils and discover more than they bargained for.
Blunt does as much as she can with the character of Lily, which is kind of all over the place. I’d like to say multifaceted, but that would imply all of a piece. Instead, Lily seems to have been put together from spare parts of other heroines from other stories. Luckily, Blunt manages to gather all the personalities in, but it would have been so much fun to see what she would have done with a goofier Lily, like the one that shows up when it is suggested she take a swim in the river. That was my first, and last, laugh-out-loud moment in the film. Comedy is her forte and even though this is a comedy, we rarely got to see her be funny.
Speaking of funny, at Disneyland I have ridden the Jungle Cruise ride dozens of times over the years, and the main reason (other than needing a break from walking around) is because the skippers of the boats are so funny. I mean, sure, you hit a dud occasionally, but I swear, most of these skippers must be aspiring stand-up comedians because most of them take the standard script and adlib their butts off and have you rolling. Rolling on the river. (rimshot). Anyway, it’s all in the delivery, right? Even a groaner can be funny in the hands of an expert.
Which brings me to Dwayne Johnson.
I realize that I will probably get pushback on this, but Dwayne is not funny in this film. They purposefully gave many of the bad jokes and puns from the Disneyland ride script in the film to his character, Frank. But unlike most of the ride skippers, Dwayne lacks the timing to make them funny groaners, instead, just makes them painful. And given the fact that those bad puns were a big part of the movie, it was unfortunate.
Still, I liked Johnson’s Frank, and he did have some nice moments, and not just his stunt work. In the quieter moments between characters, he was very watchable. In particular, there is a scene involving a conversation between Frank and MacGregor in which there is some very lovely subtlety to his reactions. It is one of his stronger and more memorable moments in the movie. I wanted to see more of this. Other moments popped up in flashback scenes from Frank’s life, and in much of his work with Blunt, when Frank and Lily are warming to one another. I really hope that there is more drama in Johnson’s acting future and less comedy.
As for the chemistry between Blunt and Johnson, it would be a plus for the studio if there were some so that they could start writing a sequel. Which, come to think of it, they probably will do regardless. But I didn’t feel any romantic chemistry, really. Sure, there are a few sparks from time to time, but nothing like what you would hope for between two characters in the middle of a hot steamy jungle. Oh wait, there weren’t two characters. There were three: Lily, Frank, and MacGregor, Lily’s brother. But really, like the brother in The Mummy” (1999), the character is a fifth wheel. It should be Lily and Frank on the boat, relying on each other to get to their goal.
That said, I loved Jack Whitehall as MacGregor. MacGregor was one hundred percent engaging, funny, and endearing. As Lily’s brother, Whitehall manages to strike a perfect balance between annoying and hilarious, and sweet and loving. His comedic timing is spot on and his reactions are believable. Also, MacGregor is unique in the movie because his character’s personality and actions seem three-dimensional, and his evolution is organic. I think the creative team may have possibly taken more care with the character of MacGregor because, as Disney tiptoes into creating LGBTQ+ characters, they have made a few missteps. But they are learning from those mistakes, I think, and they seem to have gotten this one right. They consider both MacGregor’s background and the time in which he is living as they address his relationship to his sister and his recent history, yet they make him, in his own way, fearless. It is delicate work, but Disney seems to be making big strides in the right direction.
The rest of the cast performs admirably with what they are given. Paul Giamatti is fine as Nilo, but the character seems to be unnecessary. Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim is committed to his quirk-filled portrayal of the Prince, which is commendable, but I could never get comfortable with the character (maybe because he reminded me too much of the German villain in Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know, the one who liked torture). Veronica Falcón as Trader Sam was fun, but I wish we had seen more of her.
As talented as he is, I just don’t think that Juame Collet-Serra was the best choice to direct the film. It needed a more fanciful feel to really make it work. Where he shines is in the more serious moments, but again, the comedic moments were just not as funny as they could have been.
The visuals were gorgeous all the way around. Cinematographer Flavio Labiano really made me want to jump into the screen, his images were so lush. Of course, the entire design team knocked it out of the park, from sets to costumes. The story I really want to see is the work that was put into building the boat and the town, all of which were real – no CGI at all. I see award nominations in their future.
Speaking of CGI, can we get back to villains that are mostly real actors? Honestly, I’m really done with stomach-churning visuals of creepy crawlies. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Same goes for the animals. I’m not sure why the producers felt the need to have certain CGI animals when they don’t look real. Sure, they look close, but why take audiences out of the moment if it isn’t one hundred percent spot on? Still, I’ll grant you, it is better than forcing real animals to do tricks for our entertainment, so…never mind.
So, the real question is, “Should I spend the money and see the movie?” I say, sure, go for it. It’s a fun escape (even if it falls short of the gold standard of rides-to-film movies, Pirates of the Caribbean) and we can all use that these days. I’d say that it is not for the young ones, though. There is quite a bit of violence and several nightmare-inducing creatures, but middle schoolers and older will get a kick out of it. Also, hardcore fans of Johnson and Blunt will enjoy it without reservation.
Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” releases in U.S. theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 30, 2021.
Inspired by the famous Disneyland theme park ride, Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” is an adventure-filled, rollicking thrill-ride down the Amazon with wisecracking skipper Frank Wolff and intrepid researcher Dr. Lily Houghton. Lily travels from London, England to the Amazon jungle and enlists Frank’s questionable services to guide her downriver on La Quila—his ramshackle-but-charming boat. Lily is determined to uncover an ancient tree with unparalleled healing abilities—possessing the power to change the future of medicine. Thrust on this epic quest together, the unlikely duo encounters innumerable dangers and supernatural forces, all lurking in the deceptive beauty of the lush rainforest. But as the secrets of the lost tree unfold, the stakes reach even higher for Lily and Frank, and their fate—and mankind’s—hangs in the balance.
Jaume Collet-Serra directs the film, which stars Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez and Jack Whitehall, with Jesse Plemons, and Paul Giamatti. The producers are John Davis and John Fox of Davis Entertainment; Dwayne Johnson, Hiram Garcia and Dany Garcia of Seven Bucks Productions; and Beau Flynn of Flynn Picture Co., with Scott Sheldon and Doug Merrifield serving as executive producers. The story is by John Norville & Josh Goldstein and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, and the screenplay is by Michael Green and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa.