In 2010 it was discovered that after 55 years of operation, Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride had developed into its own self-sustaning ecosystem thanks to the meticulous attention paid to the plants there. Disney built a fake jungle which ended up becoming a real one. And if you think I’m going to use that as a metaphor to compare how Disney tries to constantly build organic films out of their rides to wildly varying degrees, you’ve clearly been reading my reviews for a while.
So yes, Disney has taken their venerable Jungle Cruise ride and taken a stab at making the next Pirates of the Caribbean-sized franchise. Honestly, it’s not that bad all things considered. Not as exciting as it should be, but never as tedious as it could have been, it’s consistently entertaining regardless.
The story opens in 1916 and concerns Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a botanist who travels to the Amazon with her dandy of a brother/assisant, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall). There, they enlist the services of the cynical skipper Frank (Dwayne Johnson) in their quest to find the legendary Tears of the Moon, the petals of which are believed to cure any illness. They’re racing against a German imperialist (Jesse Plemons) who wants the Tears for himself, and a band of cursed, undead conquistadors who sought the Tears centuries earlier. Because nothing says “family-friendly Disney adventure” like the living dead.
WARNING: THERE MAY BE MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
Director Jaume Collet-Serra and his writing team had a rather unenviable task ahead of them. There isn’t a tremendous amount of lore behind the Jungle Cruise ride, and several parts of it look outdated and culturally insensitive to modern audiences. In the end, the production took the very basics of an outsider traveling down the Amazon and spun their own ideas off of it, mostly subverting the known elements of the ride for humorous or metatextual effect.
As it stands, the only parts that really resemble the ride are all situated in Frank’s introduction, where he takes tourists on staged and theatrical river boat rides. These include crude animatronic animals and a pack of “hostile” natives that Frank’s paid to act like the blowgun-wielding savages his ignorant, mostly-white audience expect them to be. In-universe, his tours are about as real as the ones in the theme park, and filled with just as many groan-worthy puns.
The story is mostly original, at least in the sense that it was created and not adapted, while not being terribly…well, original. The trajectory of the character arcs and narrative are pretty easy to suss out right from the beginning. When Lily and Frank engage in their combative banter in act one, you know full well what’s going to happen by act three. To the production team’s credit, however, the story focuses far more on the people involved with it instead of offering an episodic series of jungle-related challenges. Although those challenges are still there, they flow together easily and don’t as much resemble the stages of a Jumanji-esque game. The action is almost always engaging and exciting, even if it’s also over-edited, helped by a wickedly competent score from James Newton Howard.
A lot of what holds the film together is the performance of the cast, almost all of whom are over-qualified for the material but treat the film seriously regardless. Nobody’s going to win an award for this, but nobody’s phoning it in, either. And truth be told, Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson have some real and genuine chemistry between them, even when they’re sniping at each other. (In fact, especially then.) Johnson as always has charisma and confidence to spare, and Blunt seems very much at ease with Lily. She’s clearly got a grasp on the character, and she seems like she’s having a blast playing her. Please Universe, more action-adventure films for Emily Blunt.
I have to spend some time on Jack Whitehall’s performance, though. MacGregor is the latest attempt by Disney to create a gay character in a live-action movie, and this time…well, they might actually have done something right. Their first attempt, Le Fou in Beauty and the Beast, was not it. Their second, Artie in Cruella, was a much better attempt even if Artie’s sexuality was mostly just hinted at. Both of those characters were definitely minor support staff, though, with limited screen time. MacGregor is an secondary yet essential protagonist, and he actually gets to, like, DO things and BECOME something that affects the narrative beyond supporting the lead.
He’s also the most out of any of the live-action characters so far. A key scene in the film has MacGregor explaining to Frank that the reason he’s so fiercely loyal to Lily is that she was the only family member who didn’t reject him when it was discovered that he was gay. According to interviews with screenwriter Michael Green, this scene was in every version of the script and in every cut of the film. MacGregor is treated with a level of respect that wasn’t afforded to Artie (and certainly not to Le Fou), and Whitehall is by far one of the best aspects of the film itself. He’s comic relief by way of some withering shade, and he undergoes some very distinct growth over the course of the story. I guess the third time really is the charm here.
It’s a shame all these great protagonists don’t really have great adversaries to work against, though. Jesse Plemons’ murderous German aristocrat is a little too one-note to register, although Plemons is highly amusing in the role and is definitely trying to spin gold from straw. The undead conquistadors never come off as a real threat, and not just because of the dated CGI made to create them. They have more style than substance, being designed as horrific, jungle-based abominations. Their leader is a corpse animated by a mass of venomous snakes, while another is essentially made of honeycomb and swarms of sentient bees. They would have been the pinnacle of cool back in 2015.
Even given all this, the film has a knack of making all the disparate elements of itself seem like they belong even if they look like they don’t make sense together. It’s a pop remix of cinematic cubism. For instance, the twists and reveals of the second half of the film seemingly come out of nowhere and initially don’t seem to make sense, but they somehow uncannily fold themselves easily into the narrative even while you’re still thinking “Wait…what?” It’s the equivalent of a Dungeon Master throwing improvised, left-field lore at his over-achieving players then sitting back as if it was always supposed to be happen.
There are definitely rough spots in this jungle cruise, and we’re not talking just about the rapids and waterfalls. It gets a bit too absurd toward the end, and it’s definitely a bit too long to be truly sustainable. But the appeal of its cast and its action scenes can’t be denied. It might never feel as natural as it should, but that doesn’t prevent it from being fun. Is it worth the Disney Premiere Access fee? That’s a conversation for you and your budget. But is it a good time with a good crew? Well, it might not be the most wild ride in the world, but it’s definitely worth the ticket.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-
Jungle Cruise can be streamed exclusively on Disney+ with Premiere Access.