Featuring the double star power of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, Jungle Cruise is the latest film adaption of a beloved Disney theme park. But should audiences pay the full ticket price?
Disney knows a thing or two about utilizing nostalgia in both their films and their theme park attractions to draw in curious audiences. So it’s no eighth wonder why Pirates of the Caribbean caught so many by surprise in 2003 with its swashbuckling adventure script, which borrowed quite a lot from so little.
But Pirates certainly stands out as an exception compared to its contemporaries—Haunted Mansion, Tomorrowland, and The Country Bears, to name a few. Which is probably why Jungle Cruise draws most of its inspiration from those movies (and other late-90s and early-2000s adventure films like The Mummy) than it does its own source material.
That’s probably for the best. The Jungle Cruise ride isn’t exactly a bible of storytelling potential, but it is one of the original Disneyland attractions, starting out more as an educational tour based on Disney’s True-Life Adventure films. Walt Disney later reworked the ride with animator Marc Davis to infuse the cruise with humor and thrills, much of which has lasted the test of time and can still be enjoyed today.
Jungle Cruise is a familiar adventure, but not in the way you might think.
The film version of Jungle Cruise, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (The Commuter), doesn’t have much of a connection to the actual attraction, aside from a goofy opening tribute, which serves as a cinematic condensing of the cheesy puns and jungle effects over the course of a low-stakes river excursion. From there, the movie departs into a pseudo hybrid of a standard Indiana Jones adventure mixed with some more family friendly peril aligned with the latter Pirates movies.
Emily Blunt stars as Dr. Lily Houghton, who travels to the Amazon at the height of WWI with her younger brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall) in search of a mystical tree that can cure any disease. They recruit Captain Frank (Dwayne Johnson) to guide them through the jungle’s various obstacles, but they quickly realize their skipper has an agenda, and some dark secrets, of his own.
It’s easy to look at Jungle Cruise as a cynical blender of proven movie machine ideas, mostly because it is. But the film’s saving grace is its commitment to being a throwback in some genuinely refreshing ways.
Hollywood stopped making old-fashioned, swashbuckling films at this scale quite a long time ago.
The Princess Bride, The Mask of Zorro, and yes, the first Pirates of the Caribbean represent a different era of filmmaking, when studios found it less risky to greenlight massive budgets for on-location epics with more practical effects than computer effects.
In that way, Jungle Cruise is a more palatable mix of CGI and traditional filmmaking, or at least it presents itself that way quite effectively. And the actors are well aware they’re in such an over-the-top feature—Jesse Plemons gets a particularly hammy turn here as the politely mischievous villain, and the two leads are appropriately mismatched, though Johnson struggles to make his performance in this type of setting stand out from his roles in Jumanji.
One of the more unfortunate aspects of the Pirates sequels was its increasing dependence on mythical, fantastical ideas overshadowing the grounded, technical mastery of Curse of the Black Pearl. Jungle Cruise never quite reaches that quality or delicate balance, but it does avoid the pitfalls of centering too much action around rubbery smooth, CGI-heavy dangers, save for an under-polished jaguar or two.
Jungle Cruise is about as enjoyable as the ride itself. Which isn’t saying all that much.
Never mind the cheap gimmicks and some lacking story beats, including a painfully forced romance. Oh, and Disney takes another minuscule step forward in LGBTQA+ representation, which would probably be considered courageous to see in, say, 2006.
The film never quite sinks, but it fittingly goes in circles until it finally, gracefully lets us abandon ship. But if you’re willing to laugh at a few easy jokes and seriously can’t wait for that Uncharted movie to come out, or if you simply misplaced your VHS copy of Raiders of the Lost Ark, then Jungle Cruise might be a worthwhile attraction.
Jungle Cruise opens in theaters July 30 and will be available to stream on Disney+ with Premiere Access on the same day. Watch the trailer here.