When Walt Disney was creating his namesake theme park, he wanted to take guest along on one his “true life adventures” similar to what they saw in his award-winning documentaries. That was the basis for Adventureland’s Jungle Cruise attraction. There were many problems to overcome such an attraction such as creating audio-animatronic jungle animals who would always act on cue. The end result was an overly serious trip because try as they might, the ride’s skippers and robotic animals could not make the ride as thrilling as Walt would have wanted. Then the idea came about to add humor to the attraction in the form of different animal scenes and the now-famous pun-infested spiels that are given by skippers. In fact, Jungle Cruise is still one the parks most popular rides (and longest wait times).
This little history lesson sort of explains the end result of Disney’s film release, Jungle Cruise. Despite its beautiful scenery and special effects, it never seems to provide the thrills that filmmakers were going for. What makes the film worth seeing though is its comedic talent of power couple of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.
The beginning of the movie is a love letter to the Disneyland attraction as skipper Frank Wolff (Johnson) leads a tour down the Amazon River aboard his boat, La Quila presenting his own makeshift special effects and wisecracks (many of the jokes are the same ones used on the ride) to plus up the ride including the backside of water. His guests are unamused, but hey, it’s a living. Unfortunately, most of what he makes goes to Nilo (an unrecognizable Paul Giamatti) who Frank rents his boat from.
Meanwhile, Researcher Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) have traveled from England to the Amazon to enlist the services of Nilo to take them down the river. The Mary Poppins actress is less prim and proper here. She’s a tomboy. She’s smart, crafty and unafraid of danger. She wears trousers with wild abandon. MacGregor couldn’t be more opposite. The only reason he is here is because when he was bullied for being gay, she stood by him and now he’ll follow her anywhere.
Lily and MacGregor are on the hunt to find an ancient tree that is said to possess healing powers. Somehow an ancient arrowhead is needed to this trick, a fact that Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is well aware and will stop at nothing to get it from this pair. Then, after some miscommunication, the Houghton’s mistake Frank for Nilo and off they go.
Jungle Cruise makes a number of references to the original theme park ride including Schweitzer Falls (the aforementioned backside of water), piranhas and even Trader Sam (Veronica Falcon). But if you are a fan of the ride, you’ll be looking for rhinos, apes and of course bathing baby elephants, but guess what? You won’t find them here and I don’t know why.
Honestly, I loved the first half of this picture with all of its stunts and witty banter between the film’s protagonists. It’s a beautiful film and starts off well. It even resembles 1951’s The Jungle Queen with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. It’s funny and pleasant. However, after it chugs along for a while, the storyline makes a sharp tonal shift into something more closely aligned with The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. It is as if one movie crew had finished their half of the movie and then another crew were brought on to finish it.
After establishing the villain of the story (well, actually two, but Nilo doesn’t really count), the movie adds yet another, Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) with his band of cursed misfits. The simple and enjoyable storyline suddenly gets mucked up with an additional, confusing and unneeded backstory involving Frank’s early days with Aguirre, and so, he is another villain to defeat alongside the annoying Prince Joachim.
In addition, it appears that Director Jaume Collet-Serra was working with some sort punch list of political correctness that is apparently needed when making contemporary movies. Fortunately, Lily’s character isn’t so strong that she can’t make mistakes and Frank isn’t a total buffoon either. In fact, these two are made for each other. Contrast that to MacGregor who can’t get his shoes wet. He is pretty annoying in the beginning of the movie, but eventually, he toughens up and becomes a lot more likeable. But while trying to unravel a number of stereotypes of some of the characters, the film turns around and creates more with others. You begin to wonder, should I be laughing at that? Is that funny?
The closer the film gets to its ending, the more illogical the story becomes, more “action” is infused and the comedy takes a back seat. There is nothing really thrilling here. Just some images bound to give some kids nightmares. While not as bad as the ending to the Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, this ship would have sunk if it weren’t for Johnson and Blunt. So while I was disappointed with the storyline of Jungle Cruise, the characters and comedy made up for that.
As you would expect, this is family-friendly but not every kid is going to be a fan. A simple rule of thumb: if your kid can sit through a Jack Sparrow movie without getting nightmares, then they will be able to handle Jungle Cruise. If not? Visit Disneyland instead.
Main Image: (L-R): Emily Blunt as Lily Houghton, Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff and Jack Whitehall as MacGregor Houghton in Disney’s JUNGLE CRUISE. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2021 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.