Disney's newest "ride adaptation" is a charming if derivative affair
The roadmap that Disney created of transforming amusement park rides into films (and not the other way around), has been quite lucrative. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has ballooned into a billion-dollar brand, while even the Haunted Mansion (2003) Eddie Murphy-starrer proved to be a hit. Thus, it was only a matter of time before one of the oldest rides in Disneyland: “Jungle River,” was adapted into a CGI blockbuster as well.
Jungle Cruise (2021) takes place in 1916, amidst WWI. However, viewers don’t glimpse any aspect of a war, as we follow British botanist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall), as they embark on a journey to find a mythical healing tree in the depths of the Amazon. In Brazil they hire a sleazy boat skipper named Frank (Dwayne Johnson), who agrees to take them into the heart of the jungle.
Jungle Cruise is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who makes his jump into blockbusters after wandering around the midbudget features with some hits (The Shallows (2016)) and some duds (The Commuter (2018)). In Jungle Cruise Collet-Serra clearly is trying to tap into an adventure film nostalgia that has dissipated as superheroes have taken over our screens. Jungle Cruise is much more akin to the Indiana Jones or even The Mummy films than any modern blockbuster; characters always have a witty retort, situations are resolved with crazy acrobatics, and a blanket of light humor hangs over every action. However, Collet-Serra’s blueprint of such films (The African Queen (1951) is clearly another) makes Jungle Cruise feel much more derivative as a result (you even have an eerily John Williams-y score from James Newton Howard).
Collet-Serra and the films’ five screenwriters struggle to balance their film between an homage and an independent force. You can’t tell if they want you to take Jungle Cruise seriously or not. There is a seemingly serious villain in the undead conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) and a more ridiculous one with the German prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons). The result is a swinging plot which will abandon characters for large portions of the film, only to bring them back in sloppy and unconvincing ways. Other portions that seem like silly side quests seem to drag on forever, slowing the film at many points down to a halt. The lack of a clear structure for antagonists also lowers the stakes of the entire film, making the actual quest at the center of Jungle Cruise seem unimportant.
It is when Collet-Serra focuses on his main characters that Jungle Cruise shines. I would never have guessed that Johnson and Blunt would have as much chemistry as they do, and yet they largely lift Jungle Cruise from becoming a forgettable flick. Blunt especially is electric, putting an energetic and charming performance that makes you admire her professionality in her every role. Johnson, meanwhile, excels at playing himself yet again, a charming and tough macho who has a soft heart; it’s hard for him to mess that kind of role up.
In the end, Jungle Cruise is a passable adventure flick. You’ll fail to be surprised with any set piece or plot point in the film, and after a while the narrative becomes rather predictable. The overreliance on previous adventure films’ structures and some weak villains are slightly balanced with the two charming leads. However, these kinds of “safe” and harmless films are sometimes what you need for a bit of escapism, even they are pale imitations of Indiana Jones.