Jungle Cruise review: swashbuckling action-adventure spectacle

(L-R) Jack Whitehall as MacGregor, Emily Blunt as Lily and Dwayne Johnson as Frank IN Disney's JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo by Frank Masi. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
(L-R) Jack Whitehall as MacGregor, Emily Blunt as Lily and Dwayne Johnson as Frank IN Disney's JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo by Frank Masi. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. /

In the 65+ years since Disneyland first opened in California, the Walt Disney Company has had a long and shall we say… tumultuous relationship with attempting to adapt their most popular attractions into big-ticket blockbusters that rake in billions. While they found massive success with Pirates of the Caribbean (a ride whose film spawned a franchise that’s netted over five billion worldwide), there have also been flops like The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion that Disney might like moviegoers to forget. Now, in search of their next attraction-inspired franchise Jungle Cruise hits theaters this Friday – and we’re happy to report that Disney may finally have another winner on their hands.

Though not quite living up to the enormous legacy set by Pirates of the Caribbean (a film by which this is heavily inspired) Jungle Cruise has enough clever action, genuine chemistry, and family fun to make it a worthy companion to one of Disney’s most well-loved attractions.

Set in the early 20th century, Jungle Cruise follows intrepid biologist Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), who convinces her younger brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to accompany her on a treacherous trek down the Amazon in search of “tears of the moon”, a mythical plant said to possess the ability to heal any injury or break any curse.

Though Lily has the scientific knowledge to find and identify the plant, the siblings enlist the help of wisecracking Skipper Frank (Dwayne Johnson) to help them navigate down the unruly waters of the Amazon. Hot on their tail is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), an eccentric German who is intent on taking the flower for his own devious purposes, enlisting the help of cursed conquistador Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez) to make sure Frank and Lily don’t foil his plans.

Though the story is admittedly a little by-the-numbers, it’s par for the course in terms of a big-budget action-adventure blockbuster, and Jungle Cruise hangs on to one major third-act twist that genuinely caught us off guard without being too far-fetched – and it certainly helps give depth to a character whose narrative may have otherwise been lackluster. The film isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel here, but it’s a fairly well-paced (if slightly bloated, sitting at just north of a two-hour runtime) story that moves organically and never loses steam (if you’ll pardon the pun) once it gets going.

If anything, Jungle Cruise is over-reliant on the large-scale CGI fight sequences – yes, it may have worked for Pirates, but it’s still fundamentally a film about three people in a tiny boat going down the river, so in this case, smaller-scale action a-la Indiana Jones (like Blunt’s opening fight sequence) would’ve worked better. The CGI itself is also remarkably shoddy, which is unfortunate considering Aguirre’s character design bears a remarkable resemblance to Pirates’ Davy Jones, just executed to less success.

Much more successful, though, are Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson – an unlikely duo both on the page and behind the scenes – who work remarkably well together. Emily Blunt is always solid, so it’s no surprise that she injects the film with charm, humor, and a remarkable amount of vivacity. Blunt, however, is by no means the sole lead – Jungle Cruise splits the spotlight equally between Blunt and Johnson. Johnson, to his credit, is also an integral part of what makes the film tick, and without question pulls his share of the weight as a leading man. In the past, we’ve been very hit-or-miss on the kind of performances that Johnson turns in – especially when it comes to injecting his characters with life or depth beyond the ability to plow through baddies.

But, thanks to a combination of a well-written and surprisingly layered character arc and having a grade-A scene parter in Emily Blunt, Johnson turns out one of his best performances in years – if not ever. His jokes are perfectly corny to pay homage to the attraction, and of course, he suits the action set pieces well, but it’s in the more emotional, character-driven moments and the family-friendly romantic subplot that Johnson truly shines – if you’ll believe it, we found Johnson even more compelling than Blunt in this regard.

Rounding out the trio of intrepid travelers is Lily’s younger brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), who in addition to being the film’s comic relief, is also Disney’s (highly publicized) first major gay character. Though this isn’t the place to unpack all the nuances of Whitehall’s performance, we have mixed feelings on how MacGregor is presented on the whole. On the one hand, a significant portion of the film’s jokes (especially in act one) come at his expense, often poking fun at his penchant for things like skincare or clothing – traits stereotypically associated with gay men. The situation also isn’t helped by the fact that Whitehall’s signature comedic style is playing up the idea of a haughty, upper-class, effeminate man – also an unsavory trope in early depictions of queer men onscreen.

Whether deliberate or merely a byproduct of Whitehall’s pre-existing comedic style, though, the film’s attitude towards MacGregor does take a turn for the better thanks to a moving coming-out scene where MacGregor reveals to Frank that he would’ve been ostracized from his family for being gay, had it not been for Lily sticking by his side. It’s a small moment, but a beat that works wonders for MacGregor’s character – from that point on, he’s handled with a little less slapstick thoughtlessness and a little more taste. Though he starts off as the comedic sidekick, when MacGregor (and Whitehall) is given more material of substance, that’s when he truly shines – even if Jungle Cruise doesn’t quite use his character effectively.

In our heroes’ way are a gaggle of villains, some of whom work much better than others, but spearheaded by the utterly forgettable CGI conquistador Aguirre. He’s a relatively generic and unremarkable animated monstrosity with two lesser animated monstrosity cronies who would make for lackluster villains if not supported by the always wonderful and utterly scene-stealing Jesse Plemmons as the heavily-accented Prince Joachim. Plemmons, as always, understands exactly the kind of movie he’s in, and hams it up to perfection, making an otherwise unremarkable cast of baddies into something much more fun.

Jungle Cruise also makes quite a few interesting musical references to the work of John Williams (Indiana Jones, of course, comes to mind, but also The Adventures of Tintin), with a vibrant, varied score that helps entrench the film in its classic adventure roots. And, of course, it also makes numerous references to the original Jungle Cruise attraction at Disneyland – everything from the more obvious (Frank’s puns) to smaller details, like animals from the attraction, and even surprising blink-and-you’ll-miss-it references to other Disney classics like The Enchanted Tiki Room (eagle-eyed viewers should keep an eye on Paul Giamatti’s character to find that Easter egg).

Admittedly, the film isn’t perfect – it struggles with an over-reliance on large action set pieces with questionable character design, and can’t quite live up to the legacy of the many films it references (Indiana Jones, Pirates of the CaribbeanThe African Queen, Romancing the Stone, etc). But when push comes to shove, Jungle Cruise has all the right pieces in place where it counts – it’s a well-paced adventure flick with a duo of compelling leads and enough references to the original attraction to make it more than worthy to bear the ‘Jungle Cruise’ name.

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