When I heard about Jungle Cruise, it invoked bad flashbacks of other movies “based on” Disney attractions, including The Country Bears and The Haunted Mansion. I realize that Disney has plenty of space to fill on Disney+, but that doesn’t mean scraping the bottom of the barrel of ideas. I couldn’t be more wrong with my initial impressions. The resultant film left me hoping for more when I’m fairly certain that you won’t see these characters again. Still, never say never. The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies proves that there might be a way forward. Mix elements of the Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean series for a story that stands on its own. Jungle Cruise presents both adventure and constant danger at a level much higher and more engaging than the work of even the best Disney skippers.
Director Jaume Collet-Serra helmed a number of projects with Liam Neeson (Non-Stop, Run All Night, The Commuter and Unknown). With Jungle Cruise and the upcoming Black Adam, it seems that he’s teamed up with Dwayne Johnson for a while. That might be a better option since the Neeson era didn’t result in the best movies. Writer Michael Green adapted Murder on the Orient Express, The Call of the Wild and the upcoming Death on the Nile, among others. Writing team Glenn Ficarra & John Requa gave the world two Bad Santa flicks. This mixture of talents found the right inspiration for an unexpected delight through the South American jungles near the Amazon River that takes place in 1916. Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) has been searching for the famed Tears of the Moon, a tree with petals that possess supernatural healing properties. Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) wants to find the tree for Germany’s dominance and selfish reasons. Lily heads to Brazil with her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) and his many clothes trunks in tow. She hires Frank (Johnson) and his broken down boat to take her down the Amazon to where she thinks that the tree can be found.
I can’t think of a movie that was bad because of Johnson, and that endearing personality takes this outing up a notch as well. It’s clear that Johnson and Blunt are having the times of their lives making this movie, and their on-screen camaraderie and chemistry are undeniable. Whitehall mostly plays the clueless brother, yet he also gets one emotional scene that resonates. Edgar Ramírez appears as Aguirre, a conquistador from the 16th Century who also desired the Tears of the Moon and did some very bad things to the natives. Plemons chews up the scenery as the determined German. More buffoon than bad guy, I’m still on the fence about Plemons in this kind of role. Paul Giamatti has just a few scenes as a wealthy man in the small Brazilian town where Frank docks his boat. Can you ever really have too much Paul Giamatti? You get just enough here without his overpowering of the movie.
It had to be intentional for the filmmakers to pattern Jungle Cruise after the Indiana Jones series in general and Raiders of the Lost Ark in particular. That’s not a criticism, either, with imitation being the… you know the thing. In an action-packed prologue, Lily competes to find an object that’s a literal key to her quest. All that you needed was a giant boulder rolling toward her. Perhaps as an in-joke, a scene later in the film takes place at a round structure that looks just like said boulder. Lily packs a punch like Indy, and she even has a weakness that she needs to overcome to complete her mission. The element that strongly formed this comparison in my mind while watching Jungle Cruise was the determination of the Germans to capture the sacred artifact before the heroes. The decade is different, but the implications are the same if Prince Joachim succeeds.
The digital artists mix the spectacular obvious special effects with the more subtle ones. The latter class includes a number of digital animals (a scorpion, a tarantula, bees and other jungle creatures) that were clearly easier to deal with than real ones. Frank’s pet jaguar Proxima displays both personality and physicality when needed just like Frank/Johnson. It’s hard to tell the better digital creatures from real ones, and Proxima falls in that category with the potential danger of the cast being the only real indicator that a jaguar was likely not there on set. Also, Ben Jenkin receives a credit as performing the character. I loved the various designs of Aguirre’s men, which reminds me a lot of Barbossa’s pirates and other spooky buccaneers from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Aguirre himself looks like Medusa gone wild as he’s made up of snakes, and his crew members have a distinct makeup of natural elements that should have been featured a little bit longer given the creativity of their designs.
Fans of the Disney skippers will enjoy Johnson’s jokes and puns as a nod to the popular attraction. I wonder if they let him surprise guests on the ride just as they did elsewhere in Disneyland when they replaced the animatronic Captain Jack Sparrow with Johnny Depp in costume one day. Despite the jokes, this two-hour tour leans more heavily toward adventure than comedy. James Newton Howard delivers such an amazing score that he lulled me into missing the cues from one of my favorite band’s songs. I’ll have to pay more attention the next time that I watch to hear the ambitious instrumental version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” woven into the movie in a couple of places. Consider yourself forewarned, and listen for the tune’s main sections. I do not in any way encourage more live-action movies based on Disney attractions… unless they’re as good as this one. Jungle Cruise both surprised and entertained me at a time when I expect mostly ho-hum action flicks and whiny dramas.