“Jungle Cruise” sails into theaters on a wave of marketing hype and a superthin premise. It’s cute enough as a film and might even spawn a few spinoffs, either in theaters or direct-to-streaming. But “Jungle Cruise” is a popcorn movie in a world where audiences need to be convinced to go out to the theater. And it’s not quite convincing enough.
“Jungle Cruise” is a popcorn movie in a world where audiences need to be convinced to go out to the theater. And it’s not quite convincing enough.
The river-faring adventure is the newest entry in a specific subgenre of Disney live-action films: those inspired by a ride from their branded theme parks. Of all of Disney’s different movie verticals, this category is by far the crassest, a barely fig-leafed attempt to drive audiences from theaters to six-night, all-inclusive stays at Disney resorts. Since 1997 — when “Tower of Terror,” the first of these theme-park-ride films was released — the movies that pull their “inspiration” from park attendance levels have been tepid at best. From godawful muck like “The Country Bears” to big-budget flops like “Tomorrowland,” these films are now gathering dust in forgotten corners of the famed Disney vault. All, that is, save one, the 2003 Johnny Depp smash “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which accidentally perfected the formula. Those films worked because everyone knew how ridiculous they were. But they also worked because they were fun.
“Jungle Cruise” is Disney’s first naked attempt to re-create that magic since the “Pirates” franchise finally ran aground after 2017. The new film, a World War I-era period piece, stars Golden Globe winner Emily Blunt as Lily Houghton, a brilliant scientist trapped by the sexism and mores of her time, and Mr. The Rock himself, Dwayne Johnson.
Blunt’s character is determined to be the first to discover the Tree of Life hidden somewhere in the Amazon and bring back its flowers to help cure those dying in the war. To that end, she and her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) make their way to the Amazon, where they are gently conned into enlisting the services of the wily but big-hearted riverboat captain Frank Wolff, played by Johnson.
Like Depp before him, Johnson is the selling point of this would-be franchise. The actor is a veritable font of charm. Were the Houghton siblings looking for the Fountain of Charisma, the film could end at the 20-minute mark after they meet. But this is a film where it seems like another action moment is always around the corner. On the one hand, it keeps things lively, but also, you sort of wish the endless CGI fighting and tricks would pause and let more of “The African Queen for Kids” film they’re attempting happen.
Blunt and Johnson have a hilarious chemistry that drives most of the film, keeping things watchable even when the plot becomes convoluted or nonsensical.
Blunt certainly sees this as her version of Katharine Hepburn, albeit a Hepburn-action-star hybrid with endlessly clever Rube Goldberg antics. Blunt and Johnson have a hilarious chemistry that drives most of the film, keeping things watchable even when the plot becomes convoluted or nonsensical.
But importantly in “Pirates,” Depp wasn’t the love interest but a bizarre side character. Here, the movie aims to make stars Blunt and Johnson the romantic item, with mixed results. They make a cute couple, but it forces his character into more of the leading man role instead of the big personality that steals the film, which is what a mediocre movie like this needs to rise above the material.
That being said, there are some parts of “Jungle Cruise” that are better than expected. For once, Disney allows its LGBTQ character (in this case, Whitehall’s McGregor) to actually be open about their sexual orientation, though it’s not like they give him a love interest or anything. Jesse Plemons attempts to go for a more over-the-top character with his evil German Prince Joachim, who tries to beat Lily and Frank to the Tree of Life’s precious floral bounty. But only Paul Giamatti, as the rival boat owner aiming to put Frank out of business, truly reaches the correct heights of camp.
Ultimately, “Jungle Cruise” is just not good enough to make viewers ever forget this is a film designed to bring Disney fans back to the parks. Perhaps in a different world, one where people were still going to the movies every weekend and streaming was not significant competition, its middling pleasures would be enough to float to victory. But this summer, nothing about this cruise feels blockbustery enough to get families to brave the delta variant in theaters — or even open their wallets for the $30 premier access charge on Disney+.