“Based on the theme park ride” will always be an inauspicious way to pitch a movie, even if Pirates of the Carribean proved it could be done with real wit and fun. If that’s what causes you to harbor incredulous feelings towards Jungle Cruise then I’ll admit you have a foot in reality, but if you don’t also have a bit of hope for the big-budget adventure then you don’t have both feet on solid land.
Yes, the ride it’s based off of is a relic that leans on racism and colonialism for entertainment (allegedly it was recently updated to mitigate these angles), but the movie being…adapted from it? Inspired by it? Whatever its relation to the ride, the movie was being approached with a Pirates style assemblage of flair and talent, which should’ve inspired some hope.
What came of all this is an appropriately mixed bag of obvious lifting and genuine fun, a modern take on The African Queen featuring a British brother and sister being taken down the Amazon by a wily skipper with all the big stars, romance, and goofy jokes that promises, and with evil Germans to boot.
Much like The African Queen, the reason to see Jungle Cruise is the main duo who snap, crackle, and pop their way through the episodic adventures. Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn deservedly get the royal title, and to compare Jungle Cruise’s delightful turns by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt to those legends would perhaps be unfair, but what are we supposed to do when it’s such an obvious riff?
While I wouldn’t be so bold to say Blunt is a better actor than Hepburn, let’s just say you can argue she has more range, but what’s asked of the two in these movies plays right into Hepburn’s strengths. She could pull off an upper crust but adventurous lady who breaks society’s rules while cracking jokes and falling in love in her sleep. Blunt, though, is hardly less of a natural at such roles, showing again and again a penchant for going all in for unadorned, earnest entertainment in an age where performers are rarely rewarded for the flamboyant acting that requires.
And if Blunt has mixed in plenty of that out of fashion approach, Johnson has built a career on it. The behemoth of a man is more of a loveable presence than an actor, which puts him both at odds and in alignment with Bogart. I’ve personally never been charmed by the latter’s hard drinking, too cool for school persona while Johnson has continually surprised me with his sheer enthusiasm, so the softening of this version’s skipper to match Johnson’s strengths was a welcome change for me.
Still, you’ll never top and likely never equal the rush of Bogart and Hepburn (with all the weight of history behind them) cruising down a river, but Blunt and Johnson are the best you’ll do in the modern age. The gusto with which they throw themselves at every slapstick gag and playful flirtation carries this movie as surely as their boat carries them down the river, even if the movie around them puts them in some choppy waters.
The script is the obvious weak point here, with its attempt to blend the kind of frivolous, star-studded adventuring you could do in the ‘50s with today’s expectations for big set pieces and gaudy effects. It doesn’t need half the mythology they imbue Blunt’s quest into the jungle with or the rampant and often poor CGI used to bring a plethora of animals to life. I would’ve been fine with just the leopard pal that makes Johnson the ultimate cat dad and a series of modest, simple hijinks like the caper that kicks off the movie.
Unfortunately, like so many of Disney’s live-action movies, Jungle Cruise over justifies its existence with big action and awkward retcons, which works to varying degrees. The care taken to make sure indigenous characters aren’t dupes is welcome, but it feels like they expect a big pat on the back for what is essentially the bare minimum. The same can be said for the treatment of Blunt’s brother played by Jack Whitehall, who is a mild twist on the old sissy character and plays as a self-aware but annoying nod to the fact that Disney won’t let prominent characters be plain old gay already.
As for the action, it comes so frequently that you’ll long for the movie to slow down and bask in the goofy chemistry of its cast (in addition to Blunt, Johnson, and Whitehall, the always perfect Jesse Plemons as the evil German leader could gobble up more scenery). But if we have to sit through too much of it, at least it’s all meticulously constructed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who has become one of the best workmanlike directors of action out there. He’s never going to blow you away with something particularly original, but he has a firm grasp on what works within specific subgenres and here does a nice throwback to studio era adventure pics.
So no, Jungle Cruise is not the artistically devoid offering you may have feared, but it’s not stretching itself to be anything too great, either. Instead, it settles for being a lark, and its winning cast nails the frivolous good time it aims to be.
Release: available in theaters and on Disney+ with Premiere Access on July 30th, 2021
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Writers: Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Edgar Ramírez, Paul Giamatti