If you ran down a list of classic Disneyland attractions that would make good movies, the docile and very punny Jungle Cruise might not come quickly to mind. A Big Thunder Mountain western? Sure. What about a Matterhorn adventure? Why not? Even a Space Mountain sci-fi would seem more logical than making a film out of the ride that’s nothing but corny puns for 15 minutes.
The whole conceit of a theme park ride adapted to film feels a bit creatively bankrupt, even for Disney, but when you remember the very profitable history of Pirates of the Caribbean things make a bit more sense. Even the critically panned Haunted Mansion made a tidy profit. Luckily for moviegoers, Jungle Cruise is more the former than the latter.
If the mere existence of Jungle Cruise isn’t all that surprising, its general quality certainly is. The Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson two hander runs at a quick pace with plenty of action. Those two have a good enough chemistry, but an over the top mystical plot often overshadows the more intimate moments. Despite the faults though, the film manages to entertain for two full hours without feeling as corporate as other recent Disney ventures.
To that end, connections to the ride -- one of the original attractions at Disneyland -- only extend so far as each containing a boat, a river and a few cheesy quips. Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) is a quick witted, often deceitful riverboat captain guiding tourists down the Amazon until he runs into financial troubles that threaten to ground his boat.
Luckily for Frank Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall), researchers from London, are looking for safe passage down the river he knows so well. The pair are looking for a magic tree whose petals, if legends are to believed, have the ability to cure any disease and lift any curse. Lily’s fierce independent streak inclines her to be skeptical of her new captain, a sound instinct she quiets in pursuit of her miracle tree.
So the trio of jungle cruisers set off on trip that will find them face numerous Disneyfied obstacles. A cartoonishly Italian accented Paul Giamatti attempts to stop the journey before it can begin, an even more cartoonishly German Jesse Plemons chases down Frank’s boat with a submarine and that’s before the group even leaves town. The closer the Houghtons get to their destination, the more nonsensical the threats become.
None of that is to say that Jungle Cruise lacks entertainment. Its exaggerated campiness is part of the charm. Inspired as they may claim to have been by The African Queen, Disney could never make that film. Instead director Jaume Collet-Serra and his team leaned into the silliness inherent in a film about miracle petals and cursed conquistadors. Jungle Cruise, to mixed effect co-opts the spirit of Pirates of the Caribbean and The Mummy. Big, brash adventures with a fantasy flourish. For most of the overlong runtime it sort of works.
Jungle Cruise may be among the best performances of The Rock’s career to date, but it isn’t exactly far from his whole catalogue of chiseled action roles. He plays the dorky, ride-inspired, jokes to perfection and nails the fight sequences like someone who spent his career feigning combat should. Still it’s tough to watch the immensely talented former wrestler without imagining what he could pull off if he allowed his characters to show weakness. There is a tinge of remorsefulness to Frank — something you really can’t say of many of his prior performances — but not nearly enough to counter his brashness in an interesting way.
Opposite him, Emily Blunt is electric. Blunt has long been an actor that understands the assignment. Just look at the range she displays in various roles from The Devil Wears Prada, to A Quiet Place and even Mary Poppins Returns. Jungle Cruise is no different as she wrings every ounce of chemistry she can out of her more one dimensional partner. While the Rock dishes out jokes, Blunt is more than willing to deliver on slapstick physical humor that at times skews toward self-deprecation. All the while she leads with her character’s intelligence and heart. Blunt's recent turn towards studio blockbuster lead should be no surprise, she really makes the most of those roles.
Hard as she may try though, Blunt can’t save Jungle Cruise from its predestined mediocrity. This is not a film made to explore characters or ideas. Rather, the whole premise of this movie is to pump up interest in a theme park ride and juice every last penny out of any conceivably profitable piece of intellectual property Disney owns. That the end result is mildly fun feels entirely besides the point.
Watching Johnson and Blunt traverse a heavily CGI Amazon can only entertain for so long before the synthetic aesthetic seeps into a story that also feels noticeably insincere. Still, it is tough to shake the feeling that all those involved with Jungle Cruise put out the best version of their film that could ever exist given the circumstances. Disney has no incentive to make anything other that glossy, widely appealing popcorn films and to that end they’ve succeeded massively. Jungle Cruise, for all its warts, is entertaining and even surprising at times.
If all we can get from studio blockbusters is soulless action, at least make it the kind that goes for broke and has some fun along the way. Jungle Cruise was never going to be those films it modeled itself after, but it doesn’t have to be. 5/10