Jungle Cruise is the latest film based on a Disney theme park attraction, and fans will be delighted by the handful of obvious nods (puns, so many puns!) and Easter eggs (Dr. Albert Falls! Trader Sam!) referencing the iconic ride. If only the movie’s plot weren’t so convoluted and derivative.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra from a script by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa, Jungle Cruise begins with a prologue detailing the story’s unnecessarily intricate mythology, which revolves around a tree in the Amazon that can heal any ailment. It then cuts to London in 1916, as intrepid academic Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her reluctant brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) acquire an artifact that Lily believes will enable them to locate the tree. Soon they’ve landed in the Brazilian jungle and hired Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson, who also serves as a producer), a charismatic charlatan, to take them up the river in his rickety boat.
Along the way, they encounter everything from enchanted dolphins to mysterious native tribes to a German prince (Jesse Plemons) intent on finding the tree first. Between the layers of mythology, rom-com dynamic of Blunt and Johnson’s characters, and the requisite action sequences, the film is overly busy, tonally all over the place, and — at slightly over two hours — longer than it needs to be. Worse, while the film’s rollicking adventure is often reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films and 1999’s The Mummy, its mythology is largely a rehash of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, another movie based on a Disney theme park ride. The parallels between the two films, involving a curse that leads to a fate worse than death, are perplexing at best, and even more puzzling considering Jungle Cruise may have been more successful (or at least less bloated) if the storyline had been excised.
Nonetheless, Johnson, Whitehall, and especially Blunt are still winning, even if their efforts can only do so much to overcome the ho-hum plot and wild tonal shifts, which prevent them from entirely taking advantage of the humor, action, romance, and drama of the story. The actor who seems to be having the most fun is Plemons whose cartoonishly dastardly character tools around the Amazon in a U-Boat and talks to bees and snakes. It’s an amusing performance that sometimes seems like it should be part of a different film.
The period costumes by Paco Delgado and jungle-set production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos look fantastic and do a good job immersing the viewer in the time period and setting. However, the CGI used to create several of the animals and the supernatural characters looks woefully artificial. This is especially true of Proxima, the jaguar, who plays a major role but bears only a passing resemblance to a real animal. The lack of verisimilitude is surprising given CGI animals and characters of all kinds have been integrated far more seamlessly in other films, including in Johnson’s own Jumanji series.
Jungle Cruise has its charms, but never completely enchants. The film is sporadically diverting but also includes too many head-scratching choices – including the addition of a gay character in a way that attempts to appease everyone but will satisfy no one. So while fans of the theme park attraction will find parts of it rewarding, the film is far less satisfying as a stand-alone piece of entertainment.