Jungle Cruise movie review: raiders of the recent swashbucklers

MaryAnn’s quick take: Wonderfully escapist, dripping with magnificently congenial charm thanks to the comic chemistry of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt. Plus it’s sure to enrage people who use “woke” as an insult. Yay!
I’m “biast” (pro): love Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt
I’m “biast” (con): wary of cash-in movies
I have ridden the ride! (But not in several decades.)
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
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One of the most memorable cinematic experiences of my long career in film criticism — and my even longer life as a movie fan — was the absolute delighted shock of discovering that Pirates of the Caribbean turned out to be a damn good popcorn ride of a movie. (Was that 18 years ago? Whoa…) A decent flick spun off a *checks notes* theme-park attraction? Yes, this is the real world.

So my expectations were somewhat higher for Disney’s latest foray into plundering its own intellectual property for fun and profit: Jungle Cruise, spun off another Disney park ride. And if this isn’t as thrilling or as revelatory as that first Pirates movie, well, it’s still hugely enjoyable and wonderfully escapist, a very welcome combination at what is an extremely stressful moment in time that very much demands escaping from.

Jungle Cruise Dwayne Johnson Emily Blunt
I covet every article of clothing in Emily Blunt’s wardrobe in this movie.

A whole lotta Raiders of the Lost Ark went into this, plus a decent helping of 1999’s The Mummy and a dash of The Princess Bride. Snark and knowing anachronisms take precedence over plausibility, even given that the story here is overtly fantastical… by which I mean that the fantasy stuff doesn’t particularly do a great job of allowing you to suspend your disbelief. Cruise is also overtly comedic, so the dramatic influence of John Huston’s classic 1951 romantic adventure The African Queen is muted — that film was a big inspiration on the original Disneyland attraction — but the timeframe here has shifted back to Queen’s World War I setting. (The Disney ride is set in the 1930s.) And yet, one of the things I typically find enormously trying about studio comedies — their constant forced and inevitably failed attempts to blend slapstick with sentiment — works here. The action here isn’t very slapsticky, though sometimes it’s pretty goofy, and the schmaltz is not shoved down your throat, thank goodness. Still, I had a moment at the end where I was genuinely moved. I wasn’t expecting that at all, not until the instant that it happened.

That’s down to the incredibly appealing, very droll oil-and-water chemistry of Dwayne Johnson (Jumanji: The Next Level, Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw) and Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place: Part II, Sherlock Gnomes), whom we can credit for all of Cruise’s magnificently congenial charm. He is Amazonian steamboat captain Frank Wolff; she is scientist and researcher Lily Houghton, who needs someone to guide her to the hidden location of the legendary Tree of Life, the blossoms of which could transform medicine. He scoffs at her mission, and at the legend, but she is determined. Plus she has all the secret maps and keys and things that such a quest requires. And they’re off… with Prince Joachim, the youngest son of the German kaiser (Jesse Plemons [Game Night, The Post], sporting a tremendously silly accent), close behind. He wants the flowers from the Tree of Life to give his country a massive edge in the Great War.

Jungle Cruise Dwayne Johnson Emily Blunt Jack Whitehall
Serves little brother right for insisting on tagging along…

Stereotypes will be upended: Lily’s assistant, her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall: Frozen), is the fussy, fancy one, what with his ridiculous cavalcade of luggage and his insistence on dressing for dinner, even chugging down the Amazon on a rickety steamboat. (Details of MacGregor’s backstory will be used to further Lily’s personal journey. Hooray! This is gender-swapped from the usual dynamic of these sorts of movies.) The colonialist attitudes and the bigotry toward native cultures for which the Disney attraction has rightly been criticized gets a smart, mocking slap here. (The villain, in flashbacks, his legacy lingering into this present, too, is 16th-century Spanish conquistador Aguirre [Edgar Ramírez: Bright, Gold].) It’s all good stuff, and sure to enrage people who use “woke” as an insult. I am here for it.

At over two hours, Jungle Cruise might be a bit too long… though some of the bits that I would have initially been ready to chop out do contribute to that might-have-something-in-my-eye moment at the end. This movie is never going to replace Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Princess Bride as one I return to again and again… though that might be down to the fact that those movies imprinted on me when I was kid, and now I’m old and have already seen it all. But I can imagine this movie serving the same lifelong comfort-movie purpose for kids for whom this is their introduction to swashbuckling movies, and I wish I could feel that same sense of surprise that they might feel in response to this. Being thoroughly diverted, if only momentarily, by Jungle Cruise is nevertheless an excellent booby prize.

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bronxbee
bronxbee
Fri, Jul 30, 2021 4:14pm

oh, good. i have seen the ads for it and had a little spark of “this *could* be amusing, or even… good?” i too remember Pirates being an outstanding and wonderful surprise all the way around. not expecting that sort of thing, but right now, i’d settle for amusing. (and it is my imagination or does Jack Whitehall look a bit like young Brendan Frasier in that photo?)

David_Conner
David_Conner
reply to  bronxbee
Sat, Jul 31, 2021 12:58am

He really does! I think he’s also about 50 pounds lighter, too, but there’s definitely a resemblance.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  bronxbee
Sat, Jul 31, 2021 5:33pm

He does a bit. But his character is more like John Hannah’s in The Mummy.

David_Conner
David_Conner
Fri, Jul 30, 2021 7:46pm

“I covet every article of clothing in Emily Blunt’s wardrobe in this movie.”

Totally with you on this, and I’m a dude. Dwayne Johnson’s outfit looks pretty darn good on him, too, though.

Beowulf
Beowulf
Fri, Jul 30, 2021 8:07pm

The reviews seem all over the place: “Yes, but…” “No, but….” Still, without seeing the stars’ chemistry, I would have to imagine that the two primary roles are perfectly cast.

Bluejay
Bluejay
Fri, Jul 30, 2021 8:33pm

Sold!

One thing I find interesting is the phenomenon of Disney’s films causing alterations to the rides they’re connected to. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride is now VERY Jack Sparrow-heavy, not at all the ride I remember from when I was a kid (and it seems to keep changing to include elements of each new film in the franchise). I rode the Star Tours attraction back when all we had was the original Star Wars trilogy, but apparently they changed ride elements for the prequel era and yet again for the most recent set of films. I applaud getting rid of outdated offensive stuff—the redhead being sold at auction is now a PIRATE redhead, and I’m sure the racist elements of the Jungle Cruise ride will soon be taken away, if they haven’t been already—but apart from these necessary edits, a nostalgic part of me kinda wants the rides to stay as they were, as a bit of preserved pop culture history. Then again, I realize the Disney theme parks aren’t exactly intended to be museums. Oh well.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Bluejay
Sat, Jul 31, 2021 5:35pm

You need to read Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, if you haven’t already:

https://amzn.to/3fhLelI

jen
jen
reply to  Bluejay
Sun, Aug 29, 2021 11:05pm

More PC nonsense. We need more of those “elements” and I’m Asian for the record. I hate PC and liberals.

Bluejay
Bluejay
reply to  jen
Mon, Aug 30, 2021 12:18am

I’m Asian for the record too, Jen. But thanks, I guess, for demonstrating that Asians aren’t a monolith, and that Asians can be ignorant racist assholes as much as anyone else.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  jen
Sun, Sep 05, 2021 5:15pm

You’re not gonna find much agreement around here.

jen
jen
Sun, Aug 29, 2021 11:04pm

Yawn. More PC nonsense. Woke IS an insult, as is being gay because it’s sinful. I support colonialism and stereotypes (the latter because they are usually based on truth).

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  jen
Sun, Sep 05, 2021 5:16pm

Enjoy your hate.

nitoemah
nitoemah
reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Thu, Nov 11, 2021 9:11am

We will! Thanks!

Christopher Jost
Christopher Jost
Mon, Nov 22, 2021 3:12pm

…and a smarmy Paul Giamatti!…😎