Jungle Cruise is a movie that stands on the shoulders of giants. It borrows its exotic, action-adventure atmosphere from a genre with its roots in 1930s serials. It often feels like a hastily reimagined version of The Mummy, and even in the world of Disney amusement park rides turned into films, it’s outflanked by Pirates of the Caribbean. But where that film used its ride as a jumping-off point to explore a more complex narrative, Jungle Cruise, for better or worse, still feels very much like an amusement park ride. It tries its best to be fun, and it sometimes succeeds, but not quite often enough to escape the creeping feeling that this action-packed, fast-paced jungle adventure is actually…a little tedious.
Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is the most unconventional of early 20th century women. She has a Ph.D. in botany, is obsessed with tracking down the Tears of the Moon (a famous mythical flower with purported healing abilities), and most scandalous of all, she wears pants. Together with her brother, the gay-coded MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), she steals an Indigenous arrowhead from the walking Evil German stereotype played by Jesse Plemons and heads to Brazil to begin her quest. (And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with Whitehall’s performance per se, but Disney has claimed that at least ten of their films have Disney’s “first gay character,” and frankly, the schtick is getting more than a little tiring.) But for them to navigate the treacherous Amazon, they’ll need a river guide, one who conveniently appears in the form of Frank (Dwayne Johnson), an unscrupulous jungle cruise tour operator and notorious scam artist. And so their adventure begins.
The dynamic between Lily and Frank is sort of endearing, with all their oh-so-witty banter, and they have an easy rapport with one another even when they’re still claiming to hate each other. There are clear echoes of the central romance in The Mummy between Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser: the misunderstood academic and the charming ne’er-do-well. It actually replicates key moments from The Mummy: Emily Blunt has a conflict with fussy academic types who don’t take her and her brother seriously, and she even precariously balances on a tall library ladder, just as Rachel Weisz’s character Evelyn did.
But here’s the difference: in The Mummy, Evelyn is perched atop the ladder, helpless to intervene as it creates a domino effect knocking over every single bookcase in the entire library. Lily, by contrast, is not only able to stabilize herself but uses her position to engage in combat with the men trying to take the arrowhead back from her. They’re very intent on making Lily a fierce female character, but nothing about her is grounded in reality at all, and this is a problem that plagues the entire film.
The similarities between Jungle Cruise and other, more successful films of its ilk (not just The Mummy, but Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone also come to mind) make it obvious how much Jungle Cruise pales in comparison. It just lacks the heart that makes other action-adventure movies so beloved. Jungle Cruise has all the requisite high-octane set pieces, but they lack purpose: with a plot this limp and haphazardly thrown together, it’s difficult for the audience to buy in emotionally.
Even Jesse Plemons, who can usually be relied upon to gnaw all over the scenery in pursuit of a truly off-the-wall villain character, is strangely ineffectual here. He gets in a few delightfully bizarre scenes as he uses bees for reconnaissance work, but too often, he’s given little to do other than steering the submarine he somehow manages to get into the Amazon river. And if you were expecting Paul Giamatti to bring some class to the proceedings, forget about it: he’s in the film for about three minutes as a complete non-character.
It’s truly bizarre how much Jungle Cruise seems to want to hearken back to the days of classic adventure stories while simultaneously embracing none of the visual effects that made them so much fun. If Jungle Cruise had used even a few sequences of practical effects as some sort of homage, it would have made all the difference. But instead, it lazily utilizes the same bland, hyper-unrealistic CGI set pieces you can see in any other film. And that’s really the entire problem with Jungle Cruise: it wastes opportunity after opportunity, content to do the bare minimum instead of striving for anything special. The result is an underwhelming, bloated mess that provides a few moments of fun, none of which you’re likely to remember five minutes after the credits roll.
JUNGLE CRUISE OPENS IN THEATERS AND ARRIVES ON DISNEY+ WITH PREMIERE ACCESS STARTING JULY 30, 2021.