Film Review: Fun Family Adventure “Jungle Cruise”

jungle cruise 2021 - film poster one sheetI grew up visiting Disneyland throughout my adolescence. A definite perk of living in Southern California, and I definitely grew to have my favorite rides at the park. Given my sense of humor, it’s no surprise that The Jungle Cruise was on that list with the wry and pun-filled patter of the guides, coupled with calm, peaceful faux jungle terrain. A jungle in the heart of Anaheim? It requires no more a suspension of disbelief than a pirate-infested underground village or Neverland with Peter and Wendy.

With all these great rides, it’s no surprise the company has tried to adapt them for the movies. They’ve had mixed luck turning these properties into films, however, even as many of the rides have storylines and narrative arcs. The best adaptation so far was the wonderful Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, loosely based on another of my very favorite rides. The worst is probably still Eddie Murphy’s 2003 film The Haunted Mansion.

These films have sought to balance exciting adventures and light-hearted, family-friendly fun. We know it’s all going to work out okay in the end. In a cinematic era where protagonists die mid-film and even jaded filmgoers find themselves turning away from the screen in particularly graphic scenes, there’s still a place for the more benign fare.

The good news is that director Jaume Collet-Serra gets it all just right in Jungle Cruise, offering a film that’s visually exciting and featuring two of the brightest stars in the Hollywood pantheon: Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson. Collet-Serra’s a bit of a surprise as a director of Disney-approved family fare too since he is mostly known for his horror films The Shallows, Orphan, and House of Wax.

Blunt plays Lily Houghton, daughter of a famous English explorer. It’s 1900’s London and Lily and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) are seeking access to the library of the Royal Society of Explorers. She’s continuing her father’s quest to find the fabled Tears of the Moon, flower petals only found on the Tree of Life, deep in the Amazon jungle, with extraordinary healing properties. Except the Royal Society isn’t interested in letting bumbling young men like MacGregor or women (God help the realm!) gain access to the archives. No go.

So Lily does what any self-possessed woman would do: she breaks in and steals the artifacts that will help her with her quest. The Keystone-Cops-esque action sequence in this opening scene sets the tone for the entire movie; impressive physical stunts and top-notch visual effects, but all lighthearted and without any real peril.

After studying the newly acquired artifacts, Lily and MacGregor realize that the next step in their journey is to head up the Amazon itself, and so they head to South America. They arrive sporting their spotless English explorer regalia, Lily shocking the locals by wearing pants. “Trousers, they’re trousers” she keeps telling people. This running joke offers an opening to make fun of much of what’s changed in society since 1900’s Victorian England.

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Frank (Dwayne Johnson) and Lily (Emily Blunt), from “Jungle Cruise”

They meet up with the handsome rogue Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson). Frank offers tours of the Amazon, complete with awful puns and carefully staged “attacks” from locals dressed up as scary natives. Wolff is deeply in debt to slick local businessman Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti) and barely escapes town on his boat with the Hougton siblings before Nemlato’s hoodlums confiscate the barely river-worthy vessel.

Meanwhile, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), grandson of the Kaiser, shows up with a submarine and significant firepower. They’re also hunting for the Tree of Life, where the Tears of the Moon can be found, and are determined to beat Lily and MacGregor to the prize. Whatever it takes.

That’s the setup; Lily and MacGregor head into the depths of the uncharted Amazon jungle with Wolff while Joachim and his Prussian compatriots chase them up the river in their submarine. Silly? Of course it is. There are some supernatural elements that round out the tale, but the overall story arc is very much that of an amusement park ride; a setup, some dramatic peril, lots of funny dialog, a few clashes with the bad guys and a final act that delivers a satisfying, if entirely expected ending. Indeed, in visuals, banter, and jungle settings, Jungle Cruise is a better Indiana Jones sequel than the ghastly Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and there are even a few homage shots to The African Queen.

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MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) and Lily (Emily Blunt), from “Jungle Cruise”

This isn’t Oscar material, though the visual effects are spot-on and gorgeous. You can watch Jungle Cruise on TV through Disney+ (additional fee during the release period) but it’s really filmed to be on a big screen. And it’s great fun! My family and I really enjoyed it, laughing throughout and groaning at the worst of the puns and wry comments.

Having said that, there are some problems with the film, the greatest of which is that Blunt and Johnson don’t really have that much chemistry on-screen. They become romantically involved but it all feels like a necessary facet of the film, not any sort of attraction each has for the other.

At one point MacGregor (Whitehall) also confesses to Wolff (Johnson) that he’s not interested in women, giving us a long-requested LGBT character in a major Disney film. That’s fine, but within the narrative his confession is handled with so much aplomb that a bird landed on the boat would have been more dramatic.

Those few hiccups aside, this is another in the long line of Disney movies that are absolutely eye candy on the big screen. They’re just gorgeous, with every effect perfectly constructed, the exteriors all seamless, costumes spot-on and everything carefully assembled to allow the viewer to sit back and enjoy a fun cinematic experience. Jungle Cruise isn’t great cinema, it’s not a thoughtful exploration of the morality of Western explorers seeking “native trinkets” for egotistical reasons, it’s not a vehicle for Best Actor nominations. It’s just fun, and sometimes, that’s all you really need out of a film. Recommended.

Dad at the Movies Note: This is suitable for all ages, though the youngest viewers might need to be reminded in scenes of peril that it’s just a movie. There are a few yechy scenes with snakes and decomposing heads too, but only the most sensitive viewers will have any sort of problem at all with any aspects of this fun film.

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