Review: Disney Fanatics Will Disagree, But This 'Jungle Cruise' Starts and Sputters in Familiar Territory

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday August 31, 2021

Dwayne Johnson as Frank and Emily Blunt as Lily in 'Jungle Cruise'
Dwayne Johnson as Frank and Emily Blunt as Lily in 'Jungle Cruise'  (Source:Frank Masi)

A star-driven adventure based on a classic Disney Park's ride, "Jungle Cruise" sets sail in familiar and oft-traveled territory.

An obvious mash-up of "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and "The Mummy," the pedigree of "Jungle Cruise" is apparent in every frame. Despite the charms of Emily Blunt and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, the movie starts and sputters, sailing along on a tried-and-true formula that will appeal to Disney fanatics, but seem numbing to others.

Blunt plays Lily Houghton, a free-spirited gal in a world where women are still delegated to the balconies of the most influential chambers. She uses her nervous brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to try and access an arrowhead artifact that will help find a mysterious tree said to hold leaves that can cure all disease. When the request is denied, Lily goes about swiping the artifact herself in a feat of Indiana Jones derring-do.

Of course, she is not the only one that wants the arrowhead; a Nazi named Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is after it for his own nefarious purposes.

Once Lily gets away, she convinces jungle cruise operator Frank Wolff (Johnson) to take her and her brother through the arteries of a map she swiped to find the tree, obtain the petals of the flowers, and bring new light to the world. Alas, Frank is a fast-talking, grumpy sort of guy, and says no. But a rivalry with another captain (Paul Giamatti, in a thankless role) sparks a competitiveness in him, and he agrees to the passage. Not without a fight, though.

Of course, Price Joachim is still after the arrowhead, which Lily now wears around her neck, so Lily's attempts to get aboard Frank's boat prompts yet another action scene involving Lily being momentarily kidnapped... sort of like when Marion was carried through town in a big basket during "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

In fact, up until now, the beats of "Jungle Cruise" mimic other Disney-owned franchises. There are the hallowed chambers of men discussing artifacts from "Raiders," there's an opening action sequence that utilizes the line "Give me the [insert precious object] and I'll save your life," also from "Raiders," and even a "Star Wars" moment where Lily needs to book passage with a scoundrel in a bar, only to have one of his rivals threaten to kill him. (There are moments where the dialogue seems all too familiar, too.)

Thirty minutes in, we've had two escape sequences and a bar fight with a rival and a tiger. Now it's getting into "The Mummy Returns" territory, where you can hear the studio hollering "More! More! More!"

Now that our fateful duo are on their trip, there is the usual flirty shenanigans, some run-ins with the locals, Prince Joachim getting messages from bees as to where the fabled tree is, and a trio of dead treasure hunters that recall the supernatural characters from the "Pirates" movies.

All of it is noisy, colorful, and fitfully entertaining. The problem is, it's too long and too convoluted to really stick. Set pieces blend together, and nighttime action sequences are hard to follow.

I've often said directors like Steven Spielberg know how to bring his audience along with the action. He directs as if we are the hero, moving our eyes to establish the momentary threats around them, and join them in the decision making as to how to escape. Here (and in many action movies today), we are simply bystanders watching a mess of stuff happening but not feeling connected to any of it. It's visual noise.

Blunt and Johnson are both charming, but lack the romantic chemistry needed to make some key moments work. Whitehall plays the prissy London-ite in that over-arching Disney way, which would be fine except for when it is revealed he is gay, then it seems like a cliché. That said, the reveal of his sexuality is handled well, although — as expected — he is a sexless man with no romantic interest. At least he gets in on the action and learns to save himself and throw a mean punch.

Plemons is sort of in his own movie, and while amusing he doesn't make for a memorable Disney villain. Ditto the three treasure hunters that come back from the dead.

All in all, the movie looks great and expensive, and Blunt and Johnson are good in anything they do. But instead of feeling like something brand new (remember what a surprise "Pirates" was?), it feels like a paint-by-numbers Disney theme park ride adventure movie. Sure, it's going to do gangbusters and there will be sequels, but there is a freshness and originality that is sorely missing that makes this cruise a bit of a jungle to navigate.

"Jungle Cruise" is available digitally today

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.