Movie Review ~ Jungle Cruise

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A riverboat captain transports a British scientist and her brother on a mission down the Amazon to find the Tree of Life, believed to possess healing powers that could be of great benefit to modern medicine. Thrust on this epic quest together, the unlikely trio encounters innumerable dangers and supernatural forces, all lurking in the deceptive beauty of the lush rainforest.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcón, Andy Nyman

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10) (11 AM)

Review: While most will instantly conjure thoughts of that ragamuffin Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow in 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl when the topic of Disney turning their famously engineered rides into movies comes up, you actually have to go all the way back to 1997 for the very first one.  Based on the leave-your-stomach-in-your-tonsils Tower of Terror, the same-named TV-movie starred Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst and it’s perfectly fine that you forgot it.  Then came 2002’s The Country Bears, having their jamboree for not quite as many viewers in theaters that had seen them in the parks over the years, and the disappointing Eddie Murphy-led adaptation of The Haunted Mansion shrinking in the shadow of Black Pearl which had come out just four months earlier. 

Numerous Pirates sequels (all subpar) would slow the ride tide of movies coming out of the studio but all it took was one irresistible movie star to kick off another potential franchise starter.  After an extended delay due to the pandemic, audiences will finally get to hop on board this new attraction with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt for a breathless ride that hits the water at full speed and never looks back. 

It won’t take long to separate the sea captains from the landlubbers in Disney’s newest ride turned movie, Jungle Cruise.  If you don’t get that little tingle of excitement for what’s to come within the film’s opening introduction of both of our effortlessly charming leads, then this may not be the right journey for you to take.  That’s all fine and dandy, but you’ll be missing out on quite the adventure in the studio’s monster attraction for the summer, which was delayed an entire year in order to give audiences the best bang for their buck. It’s a sonic boom for every penny you’re spending in the theater or watching it at home. 

Enchanted since her youth by tales from her father of an ancient Amazonian tree with flowers that have the power to heal, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt, A Quiet Place) has spent much of her life trying to track down a missing arrowhead while she studied to become a plant scientist and prove herself among her male colleagues.  This arrowhead artifact is the final piece of a puzzle she needs to go along with a map of the Amazon jungle she has been studying that she believes will point her toward the location of the tree.  However, someone else is looking for that arrowhead as well. German aristocrat Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, Game Night) has paid a handsome sum to the stodgy society of London antiquities that found it. The movie’s snappy prologue shows just how far both Lily and the Prince will go to get what they want…. but never underestimate the determination of a resourceful botanist who is aces at picking a lock and has a map of the antiquities shop drawn on her forearm.  With her prim brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall, The Nutcracker and the Five Realms) in tow and the arrowhead in her possession, Lily is ready to head to the Amazon…and all she needs is a boat captain when she gets there.

Anyone that’s been on the Jungle Cruise ride at any Disney theme park will recognize a number of the pun-ny jokes Johnson’s Frank Wolff is rambling off to his bored shipload of tourists when we first meet him.  Many taken right from the script of the long-running ride (side note…if you ever get a chance to ride it at night, do it!  It’s a totally different experience!), it’s the most assured nod screenwriters Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) and Glenn Ficarra (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) & John Requa give directly to the attraction that inspired the film and it’s completely welcome.  Eagle-eyed viewers and true fans of Disney lore will spot many Easter eggs along the way, all in good fan service without pulling focus away from the actual story.

Yes, there actually is a story that unfolds, even if it at times feels like the three screenwriters take a little longer than necessary to get there and include one too many villains along the way.  Once Lily and MacGregor arrive at their jungle destination there are some shenanigans that stall for time until they team up with Frank, giving time for the extra obnoxious Paul Giamatti (Gunpowder Milkshake) to storm in for a not-brief-enough cameo (could Disney not afford to cast a real Italian person for this Italian character?) and add in more roadblocks for Frank to get Lily on her way.  Then it’s back to the river for meetups with an indigenous tribe led by Trader Sam (Veronica Falcón, The Forever Purge) supernatural Spanish conquistadors (including Edgar Ramírez, Point Break) resurrected with evil intentions, and an unexpected twist that comes halfway in that was a pleasant surprise. 

What I liked best about Jungle Cruise was its commitment to follow-through.  Director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows) allows the film to be 127 minutes of adventure and excitement and isn’t out to rush anything past us.  Sometimes on the ride itself it can be hard to look at both sides at the same time so you end up missing out and that also can happen in film if a director loses the focus of where the action is directed.  Instead of idling in one place and allowing our eyes to catch up, Collet-Serra just keeps things in constant motion and lets us be swept up in the action.  It’s often overwhelming and, thanks to some overdone CGI, can come off looking nearly like a totally animated film, but more often than not it is completely captivating.

Much of this is owed to Johnson (Skyscraper) and especially Blunt’s indefatigable charisma and, if not red-hot chemistry, then kindred spirit-ness.  A push toward romance feels terribly forced and especially considering how forward thinking the movie is by allowing MacGregor to not only have a full man-on-man convo with Frank where he says he’s gay without using the “g-word” and then going further into talking about acceptance and such, it’s odd to thrust romantic entanglement on our leading couple that haven’t completely sparked like that.  Any flames ignited are from their gentle baiting of one another, mostly friendly competitiveness at who is the stronger alpha of the boat. 

Scheduling the way it is and knowing that summer weather can often turn on a dime, I’ve been continuing to opt to watch a number of these movies at home. In hindsight, Jungle Cruise is one I would have loved to see on the big screen – and I could see myself buying a ticket to catch it again in theaters.  Learning afterward it’s being presented in 3D in some cinemas makes sense after noting how many extended shots of various objects coming directly toward the camera. I’d note that if you don’t like snakes, you should opt out of the multi-dimensional experience – lots of snapping jaws to contend with.  The movie will be big and satisfying no matter what size screen you see it on but with July drawing to a close and August signaling the end of a strange season at the movies, this should be the one you fork over some cash to see with the family on the largest screen you can manage.  It’s worth it.