An easy family adventure that captures both the frolicking of previous movies, and the insincere historical context.
With no less than five credited writers, Jungle Cruise should be a mess. An adventure movie based on the Disney theme park ride of the same name, even the reliable charisma of Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson may struggle against torrid rewrites and a script that’s had too many hands. Surprisingly, not only is the film quite good, it manages so without putting too much onus on Johnson or Blunt, instead hoisted along by a well-rounded cast, and a chipper score.
Our heroes, Dr Lily Houghton (Blunt) and Frank ‘Skipper’ Wolff (Johnson), are united by a common purpose: she’s trying to find a plant deep in the Amazon, and he’s a boat captain specialising in that region. The Tears of the Moon is her treasure, a special plant that can heal all wounds, and she has the only map. In hot pursuit is the Hungarian prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who wishes to use these powers for ill. Trying to overtake and outwit each other, they gradually make their way towards the X on the map, with overblown hijinks along the way.
Though rooted in a Disney World attraction, Jungle Cruise carries itself more like a Fast and Furious film than any kind of roller coaster. A submarine and a ramshackle boat follow the currents head-to-head, laying traps and deploying counters on one another. Sometimes the gambles and sharp turns are in the heroes’ favour, other times not, and ultimately it comes down to good old fashioned risk to save the day.
In fact, Frank’s introduction as a one-liner spouting river tour guide who orchestrates drama on his rides to gather tips feels almost like a willful rejection of the fantasy movie‘s namesake. This isn’t some gentle Disney boat ride, careening down a methodically crafted stream that’s gentle enough for your partner to take steady photos, this is cinema, and these waters are unpredictable.
Of course, this is a gentle Disney boat ride, because you’re sitting at home, or in a theatre, but Johnson’s dad jokes followed by a tussle with a tiger is enough to raise eyebrows. By the time we’re watching an early 20th century boat take a ramp with the agility of a jet ski, it’s clear whatever this is, it isn’t quite what you’d get after two hours queuing in Mickey Mouse ears.
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Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Jungle Cruise’s most innate quality is that it keeps moving, only stopping for specific character moments to quickly answer lingering questions. Why’s Dr Lily Houghton’s brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) coming along? Here’s why, now quick, back to the boat. What about all these maps? Please enjoy this grandiose flashback, scored by Metallica, to tie everything together. No further questions? Cool, back to being an action movie.
Swinging across elaborate rainforest villages, solving underwater puzzles, dodging torpedoes, plenty goes on that it’s hard not to be taken by at least some of it, occasional blatant overdubbing aside. James Newton Howard’s score twinkles with just enough Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean to turn a smirk into a giggle, tugging on whatever weekend movie night nostalgia one harbours.
In between dodgy Liam Neeson thriller movies like Non-Stop and The Commuter, Collet-Serra made The Shallows in 2016, a horror movie about a woman stranded with a shark. Funnily enough, Jungle Cruise is closer to the latter than the former, with the prowling jungle monster Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), and a constant re-centring of just how dedicated its characters are.
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Neither Johnson and Blunt have any issue holding their own as big screen heroes, yet they’re all but upstaged by Whitehall and Plemons. Embracing his opportunity to chew every piece of scenery around him, Plemons plays up his absurd accent and resolute self-belief as if it’s an episode of Wacky Races.
The chronically insecure MacGregor Houghton, then, has a voyage to self-acceptance that nearly threatens to override the movie. A product of reserved English high-class society, the wilds of South America give him the chance to reinvent himself, and embrace who he really is. Whitehall’s shift from the overly-coddled sibling to forthright adventurer reflects his own professional arc and even if he doesn’t fully convince you he’s more than comedic chat shows, his efforts show he’s eager to keep trying.
All of this awkwardly sits against the elephant in the boat of an English scholar and Hungarian royalty vying for something that isn’t theirs, and never was. Even the opening monologue states clearly that this all belongs to people of the Amazon, everyone else is an intruder.
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I’m not expecting Disney to suddenly decide it cares about colonialism, but given the MCU movie Thor: Ragnarok’s very clear invocation of unlawful conquest and the need for kingdoms to be different, I was hoping for something. Instead we have an implication of the lesser of two evils: MacGregor and Lily are better than Joachim, right? You would rather the people who don’t want to use it to help their army, yeah?
It’s cynical, and calls to mind that atrocious scene in 2017’s Darkest Hour where Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill surveys the London Underground and gets resounding support for his fight against Hitler. Blatant whitewashing of Great Britain that trades context for something easier, and more palatable to the global box office.
By the same breath in Jungle Cruise, Spanish conquistadors are condemned for eternity, doomed by their misdeeds to an unending life on the lands they tried to bully. England, though pompous and naive, is spared, because its people believe in better, or something? The overall point isn’t really clear, a lot like football fans who’ve never held a particular trophy chanting about it coming home.
The same playfulness that muddies the water thematically does still win out by the frolicking climax. Nothing you’ll be surprised by if you had The Goonies or The Mummy or National Treasure as a kid. Plenty of the right age will consider this another classic of the same lineage, methinks. I just wish we weren’t still lying to them in the same way.