Disney has been plugging away every few years with film adaptations of their Disney Park rides like The Haunted Mansion or The Country Bears, although none of them have become billions dollar franchise grossers like Pirates of the Caribbean. Disney is trying yet again with Jungle Cruise, a movie which at worst feels like a retread of CGI monster mayhem, ala, Pirates. At its best, Cruise is a fun adventure romp with some great/awful one-liner jokes peppered throughout and lively, energetic performances. The movie may eventually descend into mystical artifact and magic lore nonsense but it mostly succeeds at providing fun escapism.
Lilly (Emily Blunt) is on a quest to find a mystical flower that could potentially cure any disease. Dragging along her reluctant brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), they end up in South America and seek the assistant of a local, fast talking, bad joke making riverboat captain, Frank (Dwayne Johnson). He is hesitant to take her out into the waters as there are multiple dangers but Lilly is determined to find her prize. Also on their tail is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) who wants the magical flower, and he is willing to awaken an undead monsters led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez). As it turns out, Frank may know more about Aguirre’s creatures than he is willing to admit.
What really clicks is the chemistry and banter of the two leads, Johnson and Blunt. They’re both zippy performers and their incessant zinging is great bringing to mind whenever Indy and Marion would trade barbs in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Johnson’s Frank is introduced as the riverboat captain in a scene that recreates the creaky charms of the original Jungle Cruise ride with a lot of in-jokes about fake hippos and weak waterfalls. It’s kind of surprising that Disney would allow a film that is supposed to be brand advertising about their ride to joke about how bad it is but it is very meta. Also awesomely, Frank makes incredibly terrible corny one-liners that literally make his passengers groan but he keeps going.
As far as a defining character trait, Frank’s reliance of Dad Jokes is fun. Later on when the movie delves deeper into his origins it feels kind of unnecessary to tangle him up in the mystical doings as he’s a lot more relatable when he’s just a scheme running regular guy. In town there’s a local businessman, Nilo (Paul Giamatti), who badgers Frank for earnings as the parrot on Nilo’s shoulder continually squawks “Frank owes me money!” The implication being that Nilo hollers the phrase so much that he’s got the parrot saying it. It’s a very silly gag which is made funnier when Lilly calls the riverboat captain “Frank Owes Me Money”.
Blunt’s Lilly is a forward-thinking adventurer who seems a bit out of time in 1916. Her wearing pants makes Frank bestow upon her the nickname “Pants” and even the baddies refer to her as “the woman in pants.” She petitions high society for an expedition to find the magical flower however her brother reads it, which he does badly. Whitehall as the brother is a source of gags as he can’t deal with the constant heat and danger. He has one scene where he admits that his romantic inclinations lie “elsewhere” which has left him disowned by everyone aside from Lilly. It’s good to see Disney adding some inclusivity in its blockbusters for once aside from brief side characters as MacGregor a main character.
As the human Prince villain, Plemons is amusingly campy with his German accent, leading to a funny scene where he tries to talk to MacGregor about “the jungle” and it immediately falls apart as MacGregor can’t understand him. Plemons is the more entertaining villain as a dopey buffoon who has more money than sense as opposed the mystical magic baddies the film keeps going back to. The various inhuman baddies of Aguirre’s crew have sort of a kid-friendly zombie-movie vibe. Each creature has its own CGI gimmick as there’s snake guy and bee guy and goo guy. Also there’s a distinctly Highlander feel to their backstory about an eternal curse as immortals have been battling for dominance over the centuries. Ramirez tries to emote as much as he can considering chunks of his face and body are digitally erased, however the bad guys never quite seem more than loud CGI. The movie kicks off with the baddies backstory set to a tribal, pan-flute, Spanish guitar orchestral version of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters. Later on when the bad guy’s surprisingly dark backstory is revealed the song becomes much heavier.
There’s a good string of action here, as the film opens up with several chase scenes happening on top of each other when Frank and Lilly first meet. And there’s also a scene involving uncovering hidden treasure room with ancient locks clicking into place. If there’s a drawback it is that Jungle Cruise gives up on modest, adventure/romance/comedy quip trading charms to overload on CGI monsters and plot mythology. Still, as long as Johnson and Blunt are being snarky, Jungle Cruise is lots of fun.
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jason Whitehall and Jesse Piemans