A large part of Disney’s success on the film front is its access to the near-infinite amount of IPs. As such, it comes as no surprise that the studio would turn something like “Jungle Cruise,” a jungle riverboat ride where a skipper guides their unfortunate victims through an amazon river with bad puns and cheesy jokes – all in good fun, though. To take that concept of a ride that doesn’t even last ten minutes and turn it into a two-hour feature seemed impossible. But director Jaume Collet-Serra, along with this the magic of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt’s delightfully infectious chemistry turn what could have been classic action-adventure into something with a great deal of emotional depth and expand on the mythology of the “Jungle Cruise” ride.
The film centers on the ambitious and determined scientist Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her brother and reluctant assistant McGregor (Jack Whitehall) looking for the funds necessary to help them embark on an expedition to find the legendary Tears of the Moon. The Tears of the Moon is a flower that can cure or remove any ailment and affliction. However, the patriarchal science society that they are appealing to considers it nothing more than a myth and denies the two any access to funds or research. As such, they make their own arrangements, which include stealing an arrowhead that would take them on their first step to finding the Tears of the Moon.
However, they aren’t the only ones who know that the arrowhead is the key to finding the Tears of the Moon. Prince Joachim (Jessie Plemons), a deranged and ambitious German aristocrat who finances and leads a military expedition to claim the Tears of the Moon for himself. Lily makes a graceful escape dancing on a library ladder to avoid Joachim and other scientists from capturing her. And the two race off to the Amazon to find a skipper that will help guide them along the uncharted rivers to find what they are looking for.
They run into Frank Wolff (Johnson), who is reluctant to take them on their quest but accepts their offer as he sees them as a means to help him with his money troubles. Frank is a scam artist who uses his charms, a script filled with bad puns and cheesy jokes, a few old-fashioned pullies, levers, and actors dressed as natives to scare his passengers and make their trips exciting. Of course, everything comes at a cost, especially when it comes to seeing the backside of water or wanting to return to port quicker because things seem dangerous – which they are not.
But as the trio make their way through the jungle via the river, Frank tries to persuade them to turn back and go on a nice gentle cruise. However, Lily, the ambitious, headstrong scientist she is, refuses to accept the offer and wants to continue on this intrepid adventure filled with revealing truths and unleashing curses. While the two seem like a mismatched pair, they are more alike than they think. Because together, they make an unbeatable pair that may finally find the tears of the moon.
“Jungle Cruise” follows in the footsteps of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” where they take the aspects of the iconic Disneyland ride and expand outside the confines by adding a legend to it that expands on the ride’s mythology. Because where there are legends, there are also curses. During the intro, the film details how Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) searched for the Tears of the Moon but failed to acquire it as he fell victim to illness. While a nearby village nursed him back to health using the magical flower, Aguirre’s impatience led him to attack those that helped him. As such the jungle responded by putting a curse on him that bars him from leaving the river.
Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa script expands the ride’s mythology by adding legends and more layers, it gives “Jungle Cruise” a more profound and richer story that allows it to be more than just a ride showcasing its menagerie of jungle animals, natives that want to kill passengers aboard the river cruise, and bad dad jokes – so bad that you can’t help but burst out in laughter. And director Collet-Serra embraces everything we love about the ride itself and adds a few more layers, and uses Johnson and Blunt’s chemistry to inject some knee slapping humor into the film.
Johnson and Blunt’s constant back and forth helps “Jungle Cruise” run at full steam and helps prevent the film from being just a rehash of the traditional action adventure. The energy of Johnson’s ruggish and roguish charm is matched by Blunt’s determination and sweet snideness. Each keeps the other in check never once letting the other get the better of them. Although it’s hard not to fall for a scam when charmed by the likes of Frank. At the same time, one has to fall prey to the likes of Lily, a fully fleshed out multilayered character. And together, their chemistry helps the film shine even brighter.
And the same can even be said for McGregor, who may appear to be big softie but is actually a brave soul. But perhaps one of the more surprising things about this film is how it handles McGregor coming out to Frank. As the two share drinks during a brief reprieve, McGregor reveals that his family had tried to set him up with female companions, and he had rejected them all when he came out to them. While the Houghton family disowned him, the only one to stand by his side was Lily, and as such, the somewhat reluctant assistant felt indebted to her and said he would follow her into a volcano if he had to. Such a bond is rare to see on him, and it is even more rare to see a Disney film address these relationships since they have a history of being so coy about it. And Whitehall and Johnson carry that tender moment effortlessly as if you were really watching just two men conversing over a drink.
While “Jungle Cruise” gives a lot of reverence to the ride through its homages of the jungle, its animals, and bad skipper jokes, it hindered by its editing choices and lengthy runtime. Plemons’ Joachim is one dimensional with no real qualities to him that would make him an interesting villain. And his processes to obtain the Tears of the Moon is overcomplicated and takes away from what makes the film so entertaining. And every time the film finds this groove from the trio that’s on this intrepid quest, it has to turn its attention to Joachim to remind us that he still exists. It wouldn’t be so problematic but since the character doesn’t add much, his presence is just mere filler.
If anything, Aguirre comes off as the real adversary. The character’s intent is a noble one as he seeks the healing powers of the Tears of the Moon to cure his sick daughter. And while he failed at that, he sets out to get revenge on those who prevented him from achieving his goal. It’s the story of the tragic villain whose unfortunate decisions and haste led him to become the monster that Frank, Lily, and McGregor see before them. That comeuppance is certainly relatable to any parent who would do anything to save their child from certain death. So it only makes his resurrection that more tragic, especially when some of bigger twists are revealed.
And James Newton Howard provides much of the jungle beats to “Jungle Cruise.” Though it brings back those classic action-adventure films of the past, things take a strange turn when it makes a shift to the rock opera genre as we get more backstory to Aguirre. It’s not so much of a problem or distraction, it’s just a sudden change of tone for the film that had been cruising along a jungle adventure vibe.
Even with its flaws, “Jungle Cruise” is that fun family-friendly action adventure flick that embraces the fun of the ride and expands on its mythology through the use of legends and curses. The film draws from Blunt and Johnson, who clearly work well together despite the fact that their characters get on each other’s nerves. Watching the two roast one another, scoff at their flaws, or side eye the dad jokes is only half the fun. The other is what Collet-Serra does to turn the Jungle Cruise ride into a film adaptation, but something that is filled with legends, curses, and delightful character dynamics that will surely keep audiences on the edge of their seats and laughing all the way to the very end.