When it comes to selling movies, there’s nothing better than a well-known IP. Audiences already possess a connection with it and it makes selling it even easier for the filmmakers. There’s less risk here as most of the work is already done in convincing people whether or not they want to buy a ticket to your film. Black Widow was a hot-ticket item as the first Marvel Studios film to release since 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home until Space Jam: A New Legacy took the top spot at the box office from it in an unlikely surprise. Is nostalgia more powerful than comic fandom? Is it a sign of waning interest in the MCU? Or is it because you watch them both at home (one for free, one not)? The answer is far above my pay-grade, but it brings about a significant question: does releasing a film with a built-in audience guarantee success? As Walt Disney is set to release their latest based-on-a-Disney-ride film, Jungle Cruise, we’re all about to find out. While I have zero connection or experience with the ride that’s been a fixture since 1955, director Jaume Collet-Sierra (House of Wax; The Shallows) conjures something that’s exciting, adventurous, and funny by tapping into the natural chemistry of his leads — Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada) and Dwayne Johnson (Rampage) — and sending them on a chaotic adventure through the Amazon.
Doctor Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) hire Frank Wolff (Johnson) to lead them through the Amazon as they seek out a legendary tree believed to possess incredible healing properties. Lily sees it as an opportunity to change the world, while Frank considers her just another in a long line of adventurers the Amazon will consume. Quickly, though, Lily, MacGregor, and Frank come to realize that there’s more than an adventurer’s itch needing to be scratched in their quest to find the tree as German prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) tries to stop them at every opportunity, seeking the tree for himself and his own glory.
If you’re of a certain age (I turned 40 in Dec), then the easiest way to describe Jungle Cruise is it’s as if the brains behind the film – writers Glenn Ficarra (Focus), Josh Goldstein (Catch a Falling Star), Michael Green (Logan), John Norville (Tin Cup), and John Requa (Focus) – took Romancing the Stone (1984), Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Mummy (1999), and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) and swirled them all together. This is by no means a slight on the film, but the easiest way to describe the kind of swashbuckling romp you’re in for. There’re a decent number of frights that might create discomfort in smaller children (think: the ghost story reveal in Curse of the Black Pearl), plenty of charm as Blunt and Johnson butt heads, and plenty of action set pieces small and large to dazzle and enchant the whole way through. Most importantly, there’s a fantastic balance of irreverence enabling the audience to, well, just go for a ride and not take anything they see or experience too seriously. Considering the uneven success of Disney ride-to-film adaptations (for every Curse of the Black Pearl there’s a Tower of Terror (1997) or Haunted Mansion (2003)), nailing the spirit and feeling of the source material while turning it into something new is key. For once, the continued use of humor as a means of undercutting tension doesn’t feel forced, but as a natural extension of the source.
There are, however, a few issues that arise from leaning too closely to films within the same action/adventure vibe: the recycling of tropes and clichés of the era. It may make sense to set the film in the 1910s to immediately set up the cultural conditions which would make Lily immediately be underestimated by men even though those still exist today. It makes sense as it allows Jungle Cruise to maintain its sense of disconnected wonder that may be harder to pull off in a modern setting. This is a credit. What’s not is the way the humor constantly leans on Frank’s perceived misogyny for humor. Granted (a) Johnson’s natural charm allows it to be more forgivable and (b) the film would be boring if there wasn’t some kind of conflict between the two, but it does get old quickly. One of the best things about the Pirates films is how quickly Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan proves herself to be more than a damsel, enabling the characters to treat her as capable. Though Jungle Cruise opens with a hilarious and fun scene which establishes Lily as equally capable in the hero category, the narrative continually creates situations in which she has to prove herself time and again. Hard to tell if this is in keeping with the era or if Lily is being treated like other adventurer protagonists given how frequently she is tested. This, along with the usual twists and bits of supernatural intrigue (the plot involves a mystical tree hidden in the Amazon, after all), creates a noticeable bloat as the film harnesses the clichés of 1920s adventure serials from which the narrative clearly drew inspiration. More does not equal better, even for a film which clearly understands the narrative and visual language of the subgenre it draws from.
The other truly surprising piece about Jungle Cruise is how unfinished it seems. Narrative issues aside, the CGI does not blend well at all with the physical elements creating moments where the suspension of disbelief is shattered. Once or twice, you can roll with it, but the number of times in which characters, animals, or backgrounds take on the rubbery sheen of digital wizardry is enough to drive someone mad. Especially when Blunt, Johnson, Whitehall, and the rest of the cast do such an incredible job at formulating characters you get to know or just generally hang out with, having the curtain of *cinema* yanked down so often is frustrating. Not so oddly, it’s less noticeable in the night time sequences, a pivotal one being rather beautiful in its construction, but once the sun rises, all bets are off as to the credibility of any scene.
Since Jungle Cruise is hitting theaters the same day it’s available for purchase on Disney+ via Premium Access, be advised that there are several elements in the film clearly set up for 3D. Not sure how many folks still have and/or use 3D in their homes, but if you are planning to stream via Disney+ and can force the conversion, it may be worth breaking out the home glasses. Not sure it’s worth the extra coin for in-theater experience, but if you like the idea of animals “jumping” at you or other dangers of the Amazon trying their hand at ending your life, well, may as well.
At the end of the day, all audiences really want from a film like Jungle Cruise is a good time, which it delivers on all fronts. You’ll laugh, you’ll groan, and you may even hold your breath in anticipation as Collet-Serra takes us on a fantastical adventure through the mythic Amazon. Blunt offers a performance that reminds us how effortlessly she jumps from genre to genre, while Johnson’s natural radiance is a perfect fit for the rogue boat captain. In fact, Johnson’s performance highlights just how good he can be playing less than pristine/bad-ass characters, something which he hasn’t done in some time; offering more than good looks and charm, but layers that get more interesting with each removal. (Seriously, if you’ve never seen Faster, please track it down.) All those other films which you might think of while watching don’t in any way denigrate Jungle Cruise in the comparison, rather, they lift it up as it, for all its faults, does succeed in its promise. For a film selling audiences on a water-soaked adventure, all we ask is that it gives us that and it does. So get ready to pay your fare and enjoy a wild ride on the Amazon, but remember one thing: Frank gets paid for how many he takes out, not how many he brings back. Best hold onto your knickers!
In theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access July 30th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.