There have been a handful of live action Disney films based on the house of mouse’s theme park attractions. Most famously Eddie Murphy’s 2003 “The Haunted Mansion”, 2015’s “Tomorrowland” and the $4.5 billion grossing “Pirates Of The Caribbean” franchise. Disney has now moved on to adapting their classic 1955 ride “Jungle Cruise” to the silver screen (In theaters and Disney+ for a premiere access fee). An action adventure epic that mixes elements of greater films of the past, rather than being something new and original.
“Jungle Cruise” is a throwback to the great adventure movies of the by gone era. In 1981, Steven Spielberg introduced us to Indiana Jones and nobody filled his shoes or made, a more worthy golden era action adventure than Brendan Fraser in 1999’s “The Mummy” and its more than worthy sequels “The Mummy Returns” and “Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor”. All three films in “The Mummy” trilogy were great adventures with loads of action, CGI and personality. Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” wants to be this generation’s version of that, but along with a healthy injection of “Indiana Jones”, “Pirates Of The Caribbean”, “The Mummy” and the Bogart classic “The African Queen”. It’s quickly evident that “Jungle Cruise” inspires to be all of these films of the past.
Choreographing the adventure is Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra, who is one of my favorite underrated directors working today. Making his directorial debut with the better than original “House Of Wax”, “The Shallows” and a slew of great Liam Neeson actioners: “Unknown”, “Non Stop”, “Run All Night” and “The Commuter”. Serra hasn’t made a film as big nor as fun as “Jungle Cruise”, frankly I was incredibly surprised to have seen his name attached to this Disney adventure. Serra’s next film is another collaboration with Dwayne Johnson, which will probably be the even bigger budgeted DC comics character “Black Adam”.
“Jungle Cruise” takes place in 1916 when unappreciated scientist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), who wants to upstage the men of her field by finding a magic flower that legend says can cure any illness. Her dinner suit loving brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) dutifully follows behind her, although he’d rather be enjoying a stiff drink or going to a posh dinner party.
Right off the bat, we’re shown just how spirited Lily is as she runs circles around her chauvinist colleagues to steal an item that’s crucial to locating the flower, which is said to be hidden away in the jungles of the Amazon. During her theft, she pisses off German Prince Joachim (“Game Night” co-star Jesse Plemons, plays the films villain in a Christoph Waltz Hans Landa-esque fashion). He hopes to use the power of the petal to aid in Hitler’s rise to power. While in South America, she is repeatedly conned and swindled by Dwayne Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a hulking riverboat captain who scams naive tourists with “dangerous” boat rides.
But of course she needs Frank’s help to find the flower and he’ll do anything for money, so he doesn’t hesitate to be her guide. Movies like this relies heavily on not just the action and visual effects, but it’s chemistry between it’s two leads. Both Blunt and Johnson are so great together, the two stars crackles with energy in their back and forth banter in their efforts to outwit one another. Frank even gives Lily an endearing nickname: “Pants”, because of her liberal fashion sense. The two ooze romantic chemistry, with each jab at each other filled with pent-up sexual energy.
Johnson’s oversized personality that we see day after day on his social media, is right at home in “Jungle Cruise”. But that brings me to one of the films biggest problems. I wish that Dwayne Johnson would be a little more willing to stretch his big screen image, because at this point his roles have become all too similar and we’re just watching Dwayne Johnson play Dwayne Johnson in dress up. In fact he feels wrong for the role of Frank the skipper.
With each new role Emily Blunt takes on, she reminds us why she is one of this generations best actresses. I loved her since her breakout in 2006’s “The Devil Wears Prada”, but I just love her more and more with each role. Blunt is obviously beautiful, stunning and charming, but she is never subjected to playing the damsel in distress. Blunt just throws herself into every moment with an infectious presence. She seems to be having the most fun and it comes across in her performance.
Jack Whitehall, is essentially the films comedic relief and gets the films big heart to heart moment when he reveals his love for another man (making him Disney’s first major openly gay character). Veteran actor Paul Giamatti has a fun, but small role as the lavishly accented Nilo Nemolato. Edgar Ramirez plays one of the films baddies, as a 400 year-old conquistador and monster hybrid. It would have been the perfect vehicle for Javier Bardem if he hadn’t already played the almost same exact character in “Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”.
Screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra have written “Bad Santa”, “Bad News Bears”, “I Love You Phillip Morris” and the Will Smith caper “Focus”. The screenwriting duo have also done work behind the camera directing “Crazy Stupid Love”, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”, “This Is Us” tv series and “Focus”. Requa and Ficarra tries to keep “Jungle Cruise” on it’s toes by inserting some plot twists that makes us see some of it’s characters in a different way and lowers the stakes of the mission drastically.
“Jungle Cruise” moves quickly from one action setpiece to another, without barely having a moment to take a breath. The action is pure Disney big summer movie family fare, that should be seen on the big screen and not your home screens. Serra who shoots action really well, mixes the big summer adventure with a decent hand of comical violence, that ends up feeling like those atrocious “Jumanji” movies that Johnson makes and people somehow absolutely loves.
The $200 million “Jungle Cruise” leaps off the screen with vibrant colors boundless energy, explosions, fights and high flying adventure. “Jungle Cruise” is fun, but an unexceptional adventure that gets bogged down by a second half that tries a little too hard in its efforts to become another “Pirates of the Caribbean”. But then again, this is meant to be in the same vein as “Pirates Of The Caribbean” that is built on an amusement park attraction, so it only makes sense Disney is sticking with the well insured money making formula. But “Jungle Cruise”, in no way deserves a pass just because they wanted to try play it safe and familiar.
I had a lot of fun with “Jungle Cruise” and I love it’s attempt in bringing back the days of high adventure. It has stunning visual effects and an infectious lead performance from Emily Blunt, but there’s nothing here that blew me out of my seat. The adventure itself isn’t bad and should please its intended family audience. I only wished that Serra’s film was more earthbound similar to Tom Selleck’s “The High Road To China”, “Romancing The Stone” or “The African Queen”. Instead of becoming an unofficial sequel to “Pirates Of The Caribbean”.
GRADE: ★★1/2☆☆☆ (2.5 out of 5)