Disney’s ‘Jungle Cruise’ is a theme-park pastiche
Choppy conceptual waters make this Jungle Cruise all wet and bumpy, as it heads antically upstream with a magpie narrative cribbed from superior predecessors. Original it ain’t, neither subtle nor clever in its cock-eyed re-concoctions. You’ve been on this ride before.
JUNGLE CRUISE ★★ (2/5 stars)
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Written by: Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramirez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti
Running time: 127 mins
Take the strong-willed sister and comic-relief brother from the 1999 reboot of The Mummy and poach the tropic-thunder version of the Rock from Jumanji. Then add in an ancient-artifact wild goose chase along with scary natives and sadistic German villains all set to high-adventure orchestral music à la Raiders of the Lost Ark. Plus, for the film-geek crowd, throw in a dash of African Queen vibes as well as Werner Herzog’s titular antihero from Aguirre, the Wrath of God. And—why not?—day-glo vegetation straight out of Avatar. The result is a heady, busy brew that doesn’t ever percolate, staying stale through the very last non-nail-biting CGI showdown.
It’s a tall order anyway—and a thankless task—to take the hoary 1955 Disneyland Jungle Cruise attraction and make it relevant for today’s thrill-seekers. Amusement Park IP like this doesn’t automatically lend itself to the kind of world-building that came so naturally to the goldmine franchise of Disney’s theme-park iteration Pirates of the Caribbean. But swashbuckling seafarers are by definition a lot more fun than riverboat skippers. No kid dreams of being a tour guide—even if that tour guide looks like The Rock.
In 1916’s war-torn England, gifted scholar Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) tries to circumvent rejection from the Royal Anthropological and Diverse Adventures Society by getting her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) to secretly deliver her lecture to them. Its topic: the Legend of the Tears of the Moon, wherein a great mythical Amazonian tree magically produces flowers whose petals can heal any illness and break any curse. The scientific establishment laughs him off the stage. But Lily isn’t the only one hunting the cure-all. Also sniffing around is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a mustache-twirling baddie with a sinister Teutonic accent and a penchant for killing bystanders.
Lily nabs an ancient arrowhead that holds the key to finding the Tears of the Moon, Prince Joachim follows her to Brazil, and the two of them end up on the Amazon. The determined Brit enlists a pun-loving Skipper named Frank (Dwayne Johnson) to haul her on a nautical jalopy along the winding river; the homicidal German prefers a submarine that preposterously navigates its serpentine curves. Lily’s useless brother tags along for no good reason other than to load up Frank’s boat with Goyard steamer trunks, insist on multiple costume changes, and apply metrosexual lotions to his face. Did I mention he’s gay? Disney considers this progress.
All of this leads to the inevitable third-act showdown, with an exhausting detour that enlists supernatural help from 400-year-old undead Spanish explorers that for some reason take on weirdly compromised physical form. One has snakes under his skin; one seems to be composed of honeycombs and bees; and one is basically just a big mud pie.
Despite its neon-drenched all-powerful blossoms, Jungle Cruise earns points regardless for being an accidental primer in reality-rooted history and geography. Props for name-dropping Kaiser Wilhelm and 16th century conquistadors, Mauritania and the Peruvian Andes. Mortal threats include very real-world dangers such as dengue fever and anacondas in a South American frontier where people bet on scorpion-tarantula fights.
At its best, the wannabe old-school adventure conjures turn-of-the-century colonial exoticism and spitfire feminists who pick locks and get razzed for wearing pants. At its worst, the film relishes its spooky cannibalistic jungle natives, Plemon’s psychotic European aristocrat, and Paul Giamatti’s mamma-mia Italian loan shark, all of whom lean hard into their respective stereotypes. “Everything that you can see wants to kill you,” says Frank at one point. It’s a good caveat for viewers, too: Watch what you watch.