The popular Jungle Cruise attraction at various lands and worlds of Disney is a water ride, an animatronics showcase, a kitschy nostalgia trip, and a knowingly creaky joke machine, all at once. To this mix, the new Jungle Cruise movie adds a hall of mirrors. The ride was partially inspired by the 1951 adventure film The African Queen, wherein Humphrey Bogart escorts Katharine Hepburn down the Nile on a creaky boat. Now the ride has in turn inspired a 2021 adventure film wherein Dwayne Johnson escorts Emily Blunt down the Amazon on a creaky boat. It’s a distorted remake, told through a game of telephone that has passed the African Queen sensibility through (relatively) modern fantasy-adventure spectaculars like The Mummy and Pirates Of The Caribbean. Has the homage been maintained, or has it become one more optical illusion? Jungle Cruise sees no reason it can’t be both, and more. This is a Disney megaproduction, after all, with four roomy quadrants to fill.
Brash, resourceful Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her posh, reluctant brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) seek a mythical tree of life, supposedly hidden in the Amazon, that will allow Dr. Houghton to help heal the world’s sick and injured—an especially handy trick, considering the world is a couple of years into The Great War (a historical moment roughly shared with The African Queen). For their journey, Lily enlists Frank Wolff (Johnson), a steamboat captain who makes his living conducting pun-laden river tours, rigged with gimcrack attractions. Yes, his routine is basically the Jungle Cruise ride, lovingly transported to the actual Amazon. Frank, Lily, and McGregor are pursued by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a nefarious German adventurer who sees the obvious advantage the tree’s leaves will bring to his side of the war. There’s also an old legend about the original discoverers of the tree, who may or may not have become Pirates-style immortals of stylized goop.
Chases, archetypes, a magical MacGuffin: Jungle Cruise keeps things relatively simple. It represents a clean slate, with none of the tangled continuity of the now-dormant Pirates franchise, which was spawned from the great, surprise success of a different Disney ride adaptation back in 2003. Yet as frustratingly overcomplicated as those Gore Verbinski Pirates sequels could be, with their mystical curses and magical compasses that seemed to point the filmmakers in just as many directions as the characters, Jungle Cruise’s simplicity seems almost designed to evoke a longing for Verbinski’s commitment to his fantastical world.
The previous work of Cruise director Jaume Collet-Serra highlights a smaller-scale talent for zipping through planes, trains, and shark-infested waters, which should work well with the confines of a modest steamboat. But before the movie makes it to the boat, it runs through a couple of obligatory shore-leave set pieces, which set off a combination of pleasurable adventure-movie buzz and warning-sign buzzers. Collet-Serra sends Blunt out a window, dangling from a ladder, and Johnson to deck his way through henchmen; both are fun to watch, even as it remains easy to consider how other filmmakers might have staged them with more cartoon wit. (Hell, Verbinski’s widely reviled The Lone Ranger has a climactic action sequence that beats anything staged here.)
When Jungle Cruise does hit the water, the built-in limitations of the boat are used largely as an excuse to spend more time with its rickety characters, not engineer more inventive action sequences. It’s all quite watchable. It’s also where Johnson’s utility as an all-purpose franchise-filmmaking solution seems to wane, however slightly. Despite his easy charisma and presence that draws the camera toward his impressive form, he can’t help but look a bit like the theme-park employee he’s supposed to be deepening, in part because he’s performing opposite Emily Blunt. In addition to enlivening Lily’s bundle of pop-feminism clichés (Get this: She wears pants, not dresses!), Blunt rises to the considerable challenge of attempting to generate chemistry with Johnson, who has been involved in vanishingly few convincing onscreen romances. The general sexlessness of the Disney machine can make even the most chaste underwater exchanges of oxygen look downright heated. Just imagine if any of the sorta-flirtatious patter had the zing of a screwball pairing! (Or even the sweetly corny affection of The African Queen, which despite Katharine Hepburn is not exactly a source of delightful banter.)
Absent cleverness, Collet-Serra offers some comfort for weary eyes, like the flashes of silent black-and-white footage of the stars shot with Lily’s newfangled movie camera. At the risk of sounding like a critic from a way-old demographic, Jungle Cruise works best when it leans in this more old-fashioned direction. Its fantastical elements are well-designed, but without the stunning verve of the Pirates effects work, the more memorable villains are Plemons and, in a sadly tertiary role, Paul Giamatti, both feasting on outrageous accents. It’s a shame that the former’s weirdo fussiness never forms an alliance with the latter’s shameless, sunburnt mugging. How disappointing, too, that the film chases off anything resembling bittersweet regret, as a potentially poignant element of Johnson’s character takes a turn for the cuddly. In Disney World, there’s no chance for, say, a supernatural object getting packed into a warehouse as the camera pulls away. The ride has to stay open for business indefinitely.