(JUNGLE CRUISE premieres in theaters and Disney Plus on July 30th.)
Arriving in theaters after a year-long delay due to the COVID pandemic, Jungle Cruise represents yet another potential franchise starter for Disney. It riffs from classic adventure titles like Indiana Jones and The African Queen but instead plays like reheated leftovers from The Rundown and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Like its nautical brethren, Jungle Cruise is based on an existing theme park ride, but unlike the Johnny Depp-helmed mega-franchise, it fails to spark the same joy and mythic whimsy of its counterpart.
Set in the early years of the First World War, follows intrepid explorer Lily Houghton and her effete brother, McGregor, on their journey to discover The Tree of Life. With little knowledge of what awaits them and more sass than intelligence, the duo charters the services of Frank Wolff, a charlatan hauling tourists up and down the Amazon. On the way, they’re beset by German aristocrats, vengeful spirits, and the dangerous animal kingdom of the wild.
It’s not exactly Aguirre, although I’d pay good cash money to see Disney remake that.
Superficially, Jungle Cruise hits all the right notes, and the first fifteen minutes promise a far better result. But as with previous films from director Jaume Collet-Serra, while everything is skillful, the picture falls apart well before the halfway mark.
Even at an overlong length of two-plus hours, Jungle Cruise feels overstuffed. At least a dozen plot threads pop up well into the halfway point, and barely half find any resolution. Entire segments of the story happen because the film needs a way to continue, and there’s rarely a feeling that any of this matters. Sometimes that kind of freewheeling silliness works, but Jungle Cruise plays everything so safely that it feels cynical rather than charming.
There’s also a frustrating undercurrent of playing for cheap points. McGregor, played by Jack Whitehall, is a gay man who never says they’re gay but uses the most tired, lazy euphemism for it instead. It aims for progress but demurs from taking any definable stance. On top of that, McGregor’s feminine ways and shrill foppishness continue as a running gag well into the film.
Similarly, Disney made a big deal about removing offensive colonialist aspects from the original Jungle Cruise ride in their parks. While a good step forward, the move in the film reeks of opportunism. Native tribes are in on the joke until they’re really not, and Collet-Serra can’t resist falling headfirst into the magic natives trope as fast as he can.
There are charming bits. Emily Blunt channels Rachel Weisz from The Mummy, and while she never gets anything interesting to do, her comedic timing is always fun. Equally terrific is the brilliant Jesse Plemons, stealing the show as an over-the-top German prince. He, too, gets very little to do, and most of his part feels like an afterthought. But Plemons is such a fantastic actor he makes a meal of the morsels nonetheless.
Dwayne Johnson plays himself, and while a brief moment teases a far more daring and interesting take on the action-hero character, Johnson can’t help but embrace his dull brand once again.
He’s a charismatic presence, but his insistence on preserving an image of infallibility and indestructible dominance grates. He’s always right, even when he’s wrong, and he can’t lose a fight without an instant win afterward. Even Tom Cruise allows himself to lose these days.
Beyond that, there’s little to write home about. At best, Jungle Cruise is mildly entertaining, with traces of a better film peppered throughout. At worst, it reminds you that Pirates of the Caribbean did all this way better twenty years ago, and nothing seems to have progressed since. Nevertheless, kids will love it, and adults won’t hate it, at least.
But it all just feels like a wasted opportunity.