Movie Review: ‘Jungle Cruise’

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Cast: Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, Jack Whitehall, Édgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti

Plot: Dr. Lily Houghton is in pursuit of a mythical tree that will cure all sickness in the world. Her journey takes her to Brazil where she commissions Skipper Frank to take her up the jungle river is search of the prize.

Review: One has to wonder if Disney thought that we wouldn’t notice them dusting off the script for Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and slapping a retro adventure skin onto it. Our story concerns a magical Aztec gold petal, a villainous band of cursed pirates conquistadors, an untrustworthy captain skipper who drinks heavily and has a mysterious past, a modern thinking governor’s daughter scientist, a pursuing commandant German aristocrat…we even have jungle-infested supernatural villains that are identical to the nautical bad guys in the second Pirates movie.

None of this actually detracts from the movie…it just feels like they’re playing it extra safe with this one. The track record of Disney adapting the park rides and attractions into films is not good. As a Disneyland nerd (whose plans to actually get to Disneyland for the first time were shot down by the bloody virus) I can see why this is something they keep attempting. The Imagineers behind the rides include a substantial amount of lore and storytelling into the experience, and the iconic nature of the rides made them well suited to cross-brand integration. Whilst Pirates was an unexpected smash hit, The Haunted Mansion, Tower of Terror, Tomorrowland, Mission to Mars and The Country Bears were abysmal flops. I certainly don’t blame them for leaning into the Pirates formula in an effort to make the lightning strike twice. It doesn’t, but this is a fun family romp that shouldn’t be outright dismissed.

Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Whitehall) were taught about the mythical ‘Tears of the Moon’ from their father, and after being rejected by the Royal Society explorers and their patriarchal attitudes they steal a map belonging to Lope de Aguirre (Ramírez) and head to Brazil. It’s here that they meet Frank, a skipper willing to rent his boat and services to search for the mystical tree on the assumption that they will want to turn back. Over the course of the adventure they have to deal with natives, Germans with a U-boat and supernaturally imbued undead conquistadors. They have to solve ancient puzzles, deal with dangerous animals…all the standard family adventure fare. It’s a fun throwback that may not re-invent the wheel, but does manage to keep it rolling.

The conquistadors are pretty cool looking. Each one reflects an aspect of the jungle, and the one made of honey, bees and hives looks especially rad. Jesse Plemons’ was born to play a stuck-up German aristocrat trying to find an artefact that will win WWI for Germany. Given that he wasn’t around for the classic Indiana Jones movies, this is a great film for him.

What doesn’t help the film in the cartoon-like physics that are all too common in modern action and adventure films. What made the classics work was the work of stunt performers and creative effects work. The computer effects are as impressive as any other Disney production, but it’s hard to be impressed by Dwayne Johnson rolling around on the floor fighting a jaguar that isn’t there. On the other hand, I annoyed by children by calling the jaguar a muder-cat, something the characters then started to call it. Extra star for muder-cat.

With their more recent live-action movies, Disney has made a point to show everyone how ‘woke’ they are. This manifests in the character of Dr. Lily insisting on wearing trousers while everyone gets offended by her femininity. What this winds up being is a forced and cliched character trope. My young daughter was already impressed by this character without the constant affirmations of feminism. What works better is the scene where MacGregor explains to Frank while he follows his sister into dangerous situations he hates. Disney likes to tell everyone that their next movie has their ‘FIRST openly gay character’ for blink-and-miss it moments, it’s nice that they have a character whose sexuality informs their motivations. It’s a rather heartfelt moment about his family rejecting him that give him depth beyond the foppish archetype he initially seemed to be.

As stated above, we are Disneyland nerds in this house so it was fun picking out the references to Trader Sams, The Tiki Room and whatnot. It’s a decent little adventure that suffers a little in the pacing. A fair number of scenes and jokes run longer than needed, and with a bit of tightening up it could be much more exciting. It’s a good one to watch with the kids.

Rating: SEVEN out of TEN