When we first meet Dwayne Johnson‘s Frank in the new Disney film, Jungle Cruise, we see him guiding tourists and other rubes on a manufactured river adventure. He cracks wise, moves fast from one beat to the next, and uses distraction and artificiality to make the riders think they’re having a good, lively time. It turns out that’s also a pretty accurate summation of Jungle Cruise itself.
1916 London is a good time to be alive if you’re an educated man, but Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is only one of those things. She’s not waiting for the scientific community to let her join their ranks, though, and instead sets off for South America in search of the fabled Tears of the Moon — a magical tree with petals that legend says can cure any and all illness. With her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) in tow, she secures an offbeat skipper (Johnson) to guide them up and down the Amazon in pursuit of the treasure, but they’re not alone in their quest as both determined Germans and a quartet of ghostly conquistadors (led by Edgar Ramirez) are hot on their trail.
Jungle Cruise is based on the famed ride experience from Disneyland, and the result is exactly as shallow and simple as you’d expect. That’s not a knock, but audiences hoping for a grander, denser, and elaborately entertaining adaptation more in line with Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) will likely be disappointed. On its own merits, though, director Jaume Collet-Serra and his five screenwriters deliver a simple, fun-enough experience for the whole family.
Surprisingly exactly no one in today’s world of Disney products, Jungle Cruise is a film built on CG effects and visuals. From digital matte paintings to CG wildlife, from green screen antics to CG ghosts, there’s not much here that feels tangible. (That includes the desired chemistry between the leads, but more on that below.) It’s quality CG work, to be sure, but there’s just so much of it that viewers never feel as if they’re in an actual jungle or on a real river. It’s fitting as Disney’s Jungle Cruise ride is an artificial creation at every turn with its animatronic animals, performers playing stereotypically indigenous characters, and a “story” wrapped up by ride’s end.
Gore Verbinski’s Pirates films are a clear inspiration here alongside the likes of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999) and Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982), but Collet-Serra is never able to lead Jungle Cruise to their heights. The film never feels as big as its predecessors, nor as tactile, and that translates to the characters as well. That’s not to suggest they’re not entertaining at times which shouldn’t surprise as Collet-Serra’s filmography is filled with simple premises turned into fun little movies. The visible difference, though, is that this much bigger palette allows less room for character and personality.
Whitehall’s MacGregor is the film’s most consistent comic relief as a gentleman in distress for the others to rescue, and he’s also home to the script’s most welcome shift from the norm. Not only does he come into his own on the action front, but he’s also as close as Disney has come to featuring an openly gay character — they talk around it a bit, but it’s made very clear with both Lily and Frank being warmly accepting. Paul Giamatti is enjoying his paid vacation to Disney’s soundstages as a rowdy Italian shipping magnate, and Jesse Plemons is channeling his best Christoph Waltz as a German prince chasing our heroes in a submarine while also being saddled with epic amounts of historical exposition.
The leads, though, are something of a mixed bag here. There’s no denying that both Blunt and Johnson are quality performers with charismatic personas, and both are game for the film’s shenanigans, but they are an absolute bust as romantic partners. The script is of no real help, but it’s their utter lack of romantic chemistry that leaves the pair oddly at odds despite the film’s insistence that they’re meant to be together. They banter and trade jabs a la The African Queen (1951), but while you can feel the film squeezing the two inevitably closer it feels as unnatural as the various animals built entirely out of zeroes and ones.
There are some fun ideas at play in Jungle Cruise — give me the horror version digging deeper into a jungle that fights back against Western invaders — but they’re left to compete with louder elements, animation, vomit gags, and pee jokes. As is too often the case with Disney’s bigger films it’s a product made by committee, but happily, and unlike many of their recent reboots and remakes, it at least gives the appearance of something and some place new. And hey, let’s not discount the remixed instrumental riff on Metallica‘s “Nothing Else Matters” which makes up the main theme of James Newton Howard‘s score. It’s unexpected yet oddly at home here, and while you’ll wish the film took more weird swings it’s at least a step or two in the right direction.