There’s nothing wrong with taking a theme park ride as a launching point for a movie premise. Of course, one can’t always expect to generate lightning in a bottle the way Disney was able to with 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Of course, that doesn’t mean a Jungle Cruise movie inspired by various swashbuckling favorites should be that hard to pull off. Relying on the charms and chemistry shared by stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, there’s seemingly plenty of adventurous fun to be had. And yet, here’s a movie that ends up feeling more compelled to follow a basic blockbuster roadmap while taking no real chances to embrace much beyond reminders of the homages on display. Still, as a Saturday afternoon matinee, there are some fun sights to behold.
Set in 1916, there are three separate prologues to bring everyone up to speed. First, there’s a Tree of Life somewhere in the Amazon jungle, and it has healing powers once sought after by the notorious conquistador Lope de Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez). We then meet Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt), an eccentric botanist on the hunt for this tree, bringing her reluctant brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall), along for the ride. Finally, Captain Frank Wolff (Johnson) is a capable steamboat captain fueled by alcohol and wonderfully horrible jungle puns. He agrees to take the sibling explorers downriver to fulfill their quest.
The highwater mark of comparisons for this kind of story would be films such as The African Queen and the Indiana Jones series. More modern aims include the aforementioned Pirates, let alone The Mummy or Disney’s last successful, original live-action franchise, National Treasure. There’s a whole list of cinematic inspirations, really, which would surprisingly include Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid. If noting all these titles feels like the popular thing to do (and it’s not like Jungle Cruise isn’t asking for it), perhaps I can stray by noting Laika’s sasquatch buddy comedy-adventure from 2019, the hilarious Missing Link.
I point out this film because it has elements that Jungle Cruise lacks, namely its own identity. That’s not to say Jungle Cruise lacks charm. That’s practically impossible, given the core trio that makes up the cast. No, despite a solid start and the efforts of director Jaume Collet-Serra (taking a break from Liam Neesploitation films), there’s too much of Jungle Cruise that ends up feeling like it is on rails no different than the ride it is based on.
For Missing Link, while the destinations were similar, it managed to color outside the lines by introducing themes concerning outsiders, gender disparity, classism, and non-conformity. It did those things while balancing humor with adventure. By contrast, Jungle Cruise barely scratches the surfaces of its themes and eventually decides to overload the screen with CG, when the bickering cast is much more of a prize.
Now, one could question how fair it is to expect Disney to go deeper, considering it’s a film based on a ride where a boat captain takes a group around a river and pokes fun at the animals and passengers. However, why shouldn’t I expect more? Pirates leaned hard into the romance while also having a heavy hand pointed at the East Indian Trading Company’s effects and how it compared to modern-day U.S. politics. Fittingly, Jungle Cruise is closer in spirit to On Stranger Tides, the worst of the Pirates films, given how shallow the whole entry was while capitalizing on the action and forgetting the other things that made the series work.
Let’s back up though, as I do not dislike Jungle Cruise. I wish it did more with its potential, but there’s still plenty to enjoy overall. Johnson and Blunt may have positioned themselves not to emphasize the Romancing the Stone influence for whatever reason (odd for a movie that is a romance), but the two are very funny bouncing off each other. The contrasting personalities offer several big laughs, reasons to deploy physical comedy, and other ways to get the most entertaining bits out of the film.
As for the supporting cast, Whitehall is welcome too. Whether or not he becomes a breakout star in his first major Hollywood production, he is afforded plenty of opportunities to stand out, and not just because his character is openly gay (made crystal clear in an awkward but still dramatically compelling scene that’s also just standalone enough to be edited out for China). However, as usual, the cast really has to take a backseat whenever Jesse Plemons in villain mode shows up. He plays Prince Joachim, a deadly German aristocrat leading his own expedition to find the Tree of Life and help out his countryman in the Great War. As Plemons tends to do, the amount of offbeat choices he brings to the role allow for silly delights that exemplify the over-the-top goods one could hope for.
Less successful are the film’s attempts to, again, be like Pirates. The introduction of magic-enhanced CG villains only complicates things. Really, the second half feels like the decision was made to give the film an unneeded shot in the arm, resulting in an increased presence of Ramirez’s Aguirre and his crew, along with a lot of backstory that left me with plenty of questions. Sometimes simple is better, and while not nearly as bloated as some of Disney’s less successful efforts (Gore Verbinski’s Pirates trilogy not included, because those films are bursting with personality), I still wish Jungle Cruise held back in many instances.
Still, with its big budget on screen and numerous winking references to the original ride, I can only be so underwhelmed by the faults I have. As both a star and producer, The Rock continues to find himself unwilling to leave a particular comfort zone, but at least a film like this matches what he’s best at. I look forward to the point where he chooses to explore something deeper that’s still plenty commercial (much like Will Smith was able to). Still, if he’s happy being pals with Blunt, wrestling with his pet jaguar, and doing a good job wearing his skipper’s hat, I’m fine going along for the ride. I just wish it was willing to go more off course once in a while.