The last time Disney decided to make a movie out of one of its rides, it yielded the Pirates of the Caribbean series, whose five films have collectively made just over $4.5 billion worldwide. So the next time they went to plunder their theme park for movie inspiration, they passed over obvious choices like Space Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and went straight to … Jungle Cruise?
Sure, the classic ride has been around since Disneyland opened and offers some mild thrills along the way, but it doesn’t necessarily jump out as one on which to base an entire movie, especially one starring two action heroes like Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Blunt plays Lily Houghton, an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer who must use her foppish brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to lobby for help as the patriarchal British establishment of 1916 won’t even deign to hear from a woman.
Lily absconds with an ancient arrowhead that’s supposed to be a key piece in finding a kind of Tree of Life in Brazil. Before you know it, she and MacGregor are making their way down the Amazon under the care of Frank Wolff (Johnson), a riverboat captain known for creating fake danger and spouting bad puns. Hot on Lily’s tail from England is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German military officer who just so happens to have a submarine to be able to track them down the river.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa, and Michael Green, the film feels less like one trying to create its own identity — and since they could have gone in any direction, the sky was the limit — and more like one cribbing from other well-known properties. The Indiana Jones nods include Lily’s whole vibe and a German on the hunt for something to bring him unlimited power. Long-dead conquistadors being brought back to life is straight out of the Pirates of the Caribbean playbook. And the myriad weird CGI creatures that pop up everywhere bring to mind (in a bad way) the Star Wars prequels.
But even if you’re not a movie nerd like me, the film fails in what should have been its main goal: Being fun. There is plenty of goofiness, like Frank’s puns that are a direct reference to the Disneyland ride, but it mostly feels forced instead of a natural byproduct of the characters’ interactions. Lily and Frank are less of an odd couple and more like similar souls in different packaging, something that doesn’t allow for as much wacky hijinks as the film needs.
The filmmakers do take some interesting chances, including a take on the brother that truly shows how times have changed. The British dandy is a stereotype that’s been used many times in movies and TV, but the implication of that type of character is rarely made explicit. This film allows MacGregor to state the obvious — that he’s gay — in a brief but affecting scene, giving someone who’s usually just the butt of the joke a bit more depth.
Anyone who’s seen their other movies knows what Johnson and Blunt bring to the table. They’re both extremely charming and athletic, and both skills play into why they were cast in their roles here. Plemons uses a hard-to-understand accent throughout, but since his villain character is supposed to be cartoonish, it mostly works. Paul Giamatti shows up as the owner of Frank’s boat, a role that goes absolutely nowhere, making it a mystery as to why an actor of his caliber was cast.
Jungle Cruise is an adventure that rarely feels truly exciting, which is never a good sign. While the film won’t be the worst thing to show up on screens in 2021, it never lives up to its potential with two A-list actors leading the way.
Jungle Cruise opens in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access on July 30.