If you’ve seen The African Queen, or Indiana Jones, or Pirates of the Caribbean, or The Lost City of Z, that seems like as safe a place as any to start when discussing Disney’s latest live-action adventure. Because Jungle Cruise feels largely indebted to all of those films, and pulls elements from each one, but still struggles to stand on its own.
Premise: Based on Disneyland’s theme park ride where a small riverboat takes a group of travelers through a jungle filled with dangerous animals and reptiles but with a supernatural element.
A quick disclaimer for the readers before I begin this review: I’ve never been to DisneyLand or World, or any of its related theme parks. Therefore, I have no context with which to judge the accuracy of Jungle Cruise the movie, or the ride it’s based on, or how many references to the ride can be spotted throughout the film. Though I haven’t ridden on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride either, and I like that movie just fine.
I have, however, seen The African Queen, and Indiana Jones, and Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Lost City of Z, and that seems like as safe a place as any to start when discussing Disney’s latest live-action adventure (and I’m sure I’m leaving a film or two out from that list). Because Jungle Cruise feels largely indebted to all of those films, and pulls elements from each one, but still struggles to stand on its own. Sure, it’s becoming increasingly hard these days to make a wholly original film that doesn’t at least evoke the ideas or imagery of previous films, but this film never fully steps out of the shadows of those that came before it. Which brings to light an issue with most Disney films lately: despite most of their films boasting numerous screenplay and ‘Story By’ credits, very few of the studio’s films feel personal or unique in any way. Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa wrote the screenplay, and John Norville, Josh Goldstein, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa share story credits. It’s not unusual for even the best Disney and Pixar films to have numerous screenwriters working together, but it’s far too easy to feel like there’s too much crew on the boat, and the captain is merely steering the ship away from the rocks.
Jungle Cruise concerns itself with the search for a mystical tree, deep in the heart of the Amazon, that supposedly has the ability to heal all wounds and cure diseases. Emily Blunt stars as Dr. Lilly Houghton, an ambitious British explorer with all the smarts and ambition to be part of an exclusive club of anthropologists, but lacks the Y-chromosome necessary to gain admission. She drags her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) to a remote part of Brazil, where they charter a boat captained by the reluctant Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson). Giving chase to our heroes is Jesse Plemmons as an Evil German Type, making a meal out of all of his scenes, and making me wish we had more films with him as the bad guy.
Since this is a Disney film, the 2-hour 7-minute runtime is sure to be full of quippy banter and playful romantic tension between Johnson and Blunt. And yes, both actors give recommendable performances and work well in their scenes together, but lack the raw, natural chemistry necessary to make their relationship stand out. Johnson in particular has charisma to burn, and gives Frank the mournful undercurrent that’s necessary to invest in his personal journey of redemption. He may populate his cruise adventures with groan-worthy puns and jokes, but there’s a sadness lurking underneath that pays off nicely in the end. Blunt hits all the right notes, and proves once again that she’s a more-than-capable action star. And Jack Whitehall is clearly having fun as a wet blanket, but nails an emotional scene during the midpoint that shades his character in a completely different light.
The film is directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who’s primarily directed horror films like Orphan and House of Wax, and a handful of Liam Neeson’s post-2010 action films. Collet-Serra makes the adventure plenty of fun, but never makes it feel essential. Surely this is a film that the entire family can enjoy, including younger children, full of lively characters and fun set pieces. And Collet-Serra does his best to populate the film with plenty of wondrous imagery, like a death-defying trek on the edge of a waterfall, and a friendly – and badly – CGI’d jaguar that accompanies Frank.
The African Queen infamously shot on location in Africa, and while pieces of Jungle Cruise were shot on location in Hawaii, the atmosphere of the latter film lacks the inherent sense of danger and wonder that was ever-present with the former. That’s not to say that films that aren’t shot on location lack character. But when attempting to sell the man-versus-nature-oriented danger in your film, it’s hard to let go of the knowledge in the back of your head that these actors are mostly sitting comfortably on a sound stage. Jungle Cruise may sell itself as a unique adaptation of one of their signature theme park attractions, but this is a ride you’ve surely been on before.
Jungle Cruise will be available in theaters nationwide and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 30.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com and a recurring co-host on The Obsessive Viewer Podcast, and a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.