When considering which of Walt Disney World’s many attractions would make a thrilling movie, it’s probably fair to say the Jungle Cruise isn’t the first one that comes to mind. That’s why there was some surprise – and apprehension – when Disney announced Jungle Cruise, it’s the latest live-action movie to follow in the steps of fellow ride adaptation Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s easy to grouse about the unnecessary reliance on IP, which has become something of a staple for Disney in recent years. Luckily, however, Jungle Cruise is more than a weak attempt at finding life in old properties. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, the movie feels very much like a classic adventure flick and indeed seems to have taken inspiration from many others within the genre. Led by the delightful pairing of Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, Jungle Cruise knows how to enjoy itself, even if the journey is a bit overstuffed.
In 1916, Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) is in the midst of a fervent search for a mystical tree, upon which hangs petals known as the Tears of the Moon. These Tears are said to have incredible healing properties and it’s Lily’s belief that they could fuel countless medical breakthroughs. Undeterred by the many obstacles standing in her way, Lily drags her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to the Amazon, where she enlists swindler Frank Wolff (Johnson) to lead them on a wild adventure upriver on his boat La Quila. They are far from the only ones searching for the Tears of the Moon, however, as underhanded Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and cursed conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) also covet the petals. If Lily has any hope of getting one of the Tears, she’ll have to trust Frank, which is easier said than done.
To begin with, there is only a small portion of Jungle Cruise that actually resembles the ride it is based on, and that is when Frank takes an unimpressed group of tourists through a shoddily put-together tour of the Amazon. From there, Jungle Cruise branches off into something entirely its own, which makes one wonder why the movie had to be associated with the ride at all. Instead, the movie is more in the vein of The Mummy or, yes, Pirates of the Caribbean – and indeed, there are many moments in Jungle Cruise that will draw direct comparisons. This gives the sense that the movie isn’t entirely an original feat, but instead a mix of past ideas. In this case, though, that doesn’t diminish its overall sense of fun.
Collet-Serra skillfully stages each action sequence (of which there are many) with the right amount of excitement while also knowing when to slow things down and let the characters breathe. At just over 2 hours, Jungle Cruise has a lot packed into its runtime, but not every tangent is required. For example, Paul Giamatti puts in a quick performance as sleazy harbormaster Nilo, yet the movie would’ve been just fine without him. Between all the action and deeper mythology regarding the Tears of the Moon, parts of the plot get lost. The screenplay by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa (operating off a story by John Norville, Josh Goldstein, Ficarra, and Requa) has a lot of interesting ideas, but with so many of them, it can be hard to focus on the most important ones. The story is at its best when it is developing the characters and their relationships and it thankfully finds multiple opportunities to do so.
Despite its flaws, Jungle Cruise still provides plenty of fun. After all, the most important part of a movie like this is how enjoyable it is. The aforementioned action scenes provide just about every member of the cast with the chance to stretch their physical prowess, and the titular jungle proves to be a gorgeous backdrop. Some of the special effects, particularly when it comes to Aguirre and his men, fall flat, but production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos’ work with Frank’s beloved boat and the harbor it rests in give Jungle Cruise a more grounded touch. James Newton Howard’s score is another standout; at one point, a flashback sequence is set to some rollicking cords that only heighten the excitement of the story.
Without a doubt, though, Jungle Cruise would not succeed without its main stars. As unlikely a pair as they may seem, Blunt and Johnson are electric together. Blunt has steadily cemented herself as a great action star over the years, and the role of Lily gives her the chance to expertly straddle the line between bookish nerd and butt-kicking heroine. She goes toe-to-toe with Johnson and does not back down, making their banter great fun. Johnson finds real heart in Frank, who starts off as a slightly stereotypical grifter. As Jungle Cruise progresses, he deepens considerably, and Johnson handles the changes well. Whitehall and Plemons both get in plenty of funny moments, though in the case of MacGregor, the talk surrounding his character will likely be focused on Disney’s latest attempt to showcase a gay character in a meaningful way. Meanwhile, Ramirez is underused in a role that mainly keeps him as a CGI monster.
All told, Jungle Cruise is the kind of classic popcorn entertainment that the summer season is made for. This is a feature that will be available in theaters, though audiences can also watch it at home via Disney+ Premier Access. For the maximum amount of entertainment, a big screen seems best, if only to get the full experience of being pulled along for the ride. Those looking for warm-hearted thrills would do well to board the Jungle Cruise. It’s a lot more fun than the ride itself would suggest.