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.
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.
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.