In the pantheon of Disney movies based on Disney theme park rides, “Jungle Cruise” is pretty good—leagues better than dreck like “Haunted Mansion,” though not quite as satisfying as the original “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
The most pleasant surprise is that director Jaume Collet-Serra (“The Shallows”) and a credited team of five, count ’em, writers have largely jettisoned the ride’s mid-century American colonial snarkiness and casual racism (only recently eliminated). Setting the revamp squarely in the wheelhouse of blockbuster franchise-starters like “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Romancing the Stone” and “The Mummy,” and pushing the fantastical elements to the point where the story barely seems to be taking place in our universe, it’s a knowingly goofy romp, anchored to the banter between its leads, an English feminist and adventurer played by Emily Blunt and a river boat captain/adventurer played by Dwayne Johnson.
Notably, however, even though the stars’ costumes evoke the classic “The African Queen”—John Huston’s comic romance/action film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn; worth looking up if you’ve never watched it—the sexual chemistry between the two is nonexistent. At times they seem more like a brother and sister yelling at each other. This is often (strangely) a problem, or perhaps just a feature, in films starring Johnson, the four-quadrant blockbuster king (though not on his HBO drama “Ballers”). But the film’s tight construction and prolific action scenes carry it, and Blunt and Johnson do the irresistible force/immovable object dynamic well enough, swapping energies as the story demands.
Blunt’s character, Lily Houghton, is a well-pedigreed adventurer who gathers up maps belonging to her legendary father and travels to the Amazon circa 1916 to find an arrowhead that’ll help her locate the Tears of the Moon, petals from a “Tree of Life”-type of fauna that can heal all infirmities. She and her snooty brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) hire Frank “Skipper” Wolff (Johnson) to bring them to their destination. The only notable concession to the original theme park ride comes here: Wolff’s day job is taking tourists upriver and making cheesy jokes in the spirit of “hosts” on Disney Jungle Cruise rides of yore. On the mission, Johnson immediately settles into a cranky but funny old sourpuss vibe, a la John Wayne or Harrison Ford, and inhabits it amiably enough, although buoyant, almost childlike optimism comes more naturally to him than world-weary gruffness.
The supporting cast is stacked with overqualified character players. Paul Giamatti plays a gold-toothed harbor master who delights at keeping Frank in debt. Edgar Ramirez is creepy and scary as a conquistador whose curse from centuries ago has trapped him in the jungle. Jesse Plemons plays the main baddie, Prince Joachim, who wants to filch the power of the petals for the Kaiser back in Germany (he’s essentially Belloq to the stars’ Indy and Marion, trying to swipe the Ark). Unsurprisingly, given his track record, Plemons steals the film right out from under its leads; they allow his kleptomania to go unchecked, because really, with his bizarro deadpan and explosively unpredictable comic timing, what could they have done to prevent it?
Collet-Serra keeps the action moving along, pursuing a more classical style than is commonplace in recent live-action Disney product (by which I mean, the blocking and editing have a bit of elegance, and you always know where characters are in relation to each other). The CGI is are often dicey—was the production rushed, or were the artists just overworked?—but the staging and execution of the chases and fights compensates. Derivative of films that were themselves highly derivative, “Jungle Cruise” has the look and feel of a paycheck gig for all involved, but everyone seems to be having a great time, including the filmmakers.
In theaters and on Disney+ for a premium charge starting Friday, July 30th.