3 out of 5 stars

Another Disney blockbuster based on a theme park ride, following Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), Jungle Cruise is unlikely to birth a similar franchise behemoth, but it’s an entertaining romp through adventure genre tropes… if a little heavy on the VFX. In the type of expositional prologue common to fantasy, we see a gang of 16th-century conquistadors meet their fate while pillaging their way across the jungle in search of the ‘Tears of the Moon’, a tree whose leaves are said to be able to cure any ailment. Cut to 1916, and botanist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) hires riverboat captain Frank ‘Skipper’ Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) to guide her up the Amazon, together with her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), in order to find the mythical tree for herself. Meanwhile, crazy Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), son of the German Kaiser, is also in search of the mythical tree, heading to South America by U-boat.

Family films set in the past, with a female protagonist, feel the need to constantly state how difficult it would’ve been for a woman to do what she does in the story, and how unfair it was. For example, the introduction of the Houghtons opens on an association of stuffy old antiquities scholars nonplussed by a woman’s presence in their domain, and MacGregor’s reading of a paper which one of them identifies as having been written by a “female doctor”. (He seems to disgustedly spit this phrase.) As with the trope in other films, it grows tedious quickly and ironically objectifies the character given that no real person—male, female, or otherwise—is as pure and talented and right as Dr Houghton. Surely, it would be more progressive to present women as people with the same flaws as their male counterparts? Still, it’s not as obnoxious here as it is in, say, Captain Marvel (2019), largely because Emily Blunt has an effortless likeability that works well with light adventure.

Indeed, Blunt is one of the better elements of Jungle Cruise and saves her character from becoming insufferably smug. She has a winsome manner that doesn’t call attention to itself or feels unaffected, so you never see her trying too hard or becoming haughty, which is how this character would’ve been played by many others.

Jack Whitehall’s also effective in a sidekick role. Comic relief characters don’t have a great track record in movies, as they’re too often played by comedians who aren’t writing the jokes and don’t deliver the ones they’re given with much credibility. The character here, however, feels nicely tailored to Whitehall’s comic persona and acting abilities. He generally plays the posh boy out of his depth, and here is an ineffectual fop who goes everywhere carrying piles of luggage. A revelation regarding his sexuality’s been hailed as a progressive move by Disney (comparable to Le Fou’s gayness in their live-action Beauty and the Beast), but criticised by others because Whitehall is straight. I won’t wade into the debate, other than to observe that, regardless of it, Whitehall felt well cast to me. I’m not fond of him as a comedian, but it’s hard to imagine another performer better fitting the role, and he proves to be a good supporting player.

As the riverboat captain, Dwayne Johnson is another good fit for the material. At this point, his acting career’s what one thinks of more than his wrestling background. His filmography is mostly comprised of genre schlock and franchise fare, but it’s at a higher level than many other actors who started out in combat sports. He’s a more likable performer than Jean-Claude Van Damme, cuddlier and sexier than Chuck Norris, and if not in the same league as ’80s legends Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, that might only be because they got better movies. You might not see The Rock winning major awards for his film work any time soon (ignoring his prestigious 2013 Kids’ Choice Award for ‘Favorite Male Buttkicker’), but he can sell a salty-but-sweet tugboat captain in a Disney-fied Indiana Jones.

Rounding out the cast, Jesse Plemons (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and Édgar Ramírez (The Undoing) play the boo-hiss villains; Prince Joachim and Aguirre, respectively. These are the only characters loosely based on real people, with Joachim presented as a maniacal proto-Nazi in a U-boat and Aguirre the conquistador cursed by the jungle during his original search for the Tree. Plemons is an actor I’ve come to like a lot, and he plays a dour fascist prince well. Paul Giamatti even shows up as the rotund, red-faced manager of the cruise company Skipper works for, wearing a white suit and a gold tooth, resembling a cross between a Jazz Age gangster and a pirate. The character would have looked wonderful as a cartoon in one of Disney’s animated features.

The tone is oddly dark in places, perhaps because the live-action format emphasizes some of the horrifying aspects, such as the conquistadors being choked with snakes and Joachim killing a roomful of people. It’s all bloodless, of course, but I’m not sure how many Disney films I’ve seen where an angry German fascist slits someone’s throat open! But this is mostly very Disney, with a feel closer to millennial movies like Stephen Sommers’ big-budget remake of The Mummy (1999).

The director, Jaume Collet-Serra (The Commuter), meets Disney’s requirements admirably, presenting the film with chocolate-box colourfulness: a busy London roundabout pops with its big red double-decker buses; while the jungle is painted a rich, almost sickly green. The downside is that nothing looks real. Disney’s live-action capers are often a weird compromise between “reality” and “virtual”, and in the age of CGI this look’s become bland—which is a problem in an adventure movie because we rarely get a sense these people are truly “going” anywhere. Still, it’s cheerful enough eye candy, and while I doubt Jungle Cruise will go down in history as a classic, it’s decent summer entertainment.

USA | 2021 | 127 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Jaume Collet-Serra.
writers: Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (story by John Norville, Josh Goldstein, Glenn Ficarra & John Requa; based on the ‘Jungle Cruise’ river boat attraction by Walt Disney).
starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons & Paul Giamatti.