Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” is packed with thrilling twists and turns, recreating classic adventure flicks for a new generation of young cinemagoers.
If you’ve ever stood in an hour-long line just to take your kids on a 10-minute amusement park ride, you’re probably wondering how anyone could transform the brief thrills of that attraction into an engaging feature-length movie. But, in 2003, Disney did it as only Disney can, releasing the first of five Pirates of the Caribbean movies that, together, would bring in billions at the box office. Disney has taken another stab at theme park-inspired films with Jungle Cruise, which is based on the Disneyland attraction of the same name. The ride itself was inspired by Disney’s “True Life Adventure” documentaries and has been around since the park opened in 1955. Decades later, Disney now gives the “jungle cruise” concept a new twist under the direction of Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, 2016; Run All Night 2015).
Emily Blunt stars as the independent, adventure-loving, trouser-wearing Dr. Lily Houghton, joined by Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff, a carefree skipper with a tiring sense of humor. Lily travels to Brazil with her reluctantly supportive brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), in search of a fabled tree that can heal any ailment. She employs Frank to take her to the tree’s supposed location in his creaky old boat, "La Quila," a welcome employment opportunity for the broke tour guide. However, Lily and Frank aren’t the only ones in search of the tree, and they come face to face with threats much more dangerous than poisonous snakes and bloodthirsty jungle cats. Joining the cast in their adventures is Edgar Ramírez, Jesse Plemons, and Paul Giamatti. With a delightful cast and a classic adventure plot, Jungle Cruise is set up to be a crowd-pleasing box office success.
If you put the plot, characters, visual style, soundtrack and special effects of Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and maybe even The African Queen in a blender, you’d get something similar to Jungle Cruise. The movie is an adventure film through and through, influenced by years of thrilling adventure flicks that came before. It doesn’t shy away from the cheap thrills of an amusement park ride, staging “close calls” with tree branches that stick straight out at the camera and capturing treacherous rapids via nauseating POV shots. Jungle Cruise even makes a nod to early “exotic documentaries” and adventure films, charming us with classic Disney nostalgia as Lily teaches Frank how to use a moving-picture camera. The imagery in Jungle Cruise is also uncannily similar to that of Pirates of the Caribbean (a few characters look like they walked right off of The Flying Dutchman).
Jungle Cruise strikes the right balance between action, humor, romance, and drama, falling into a steady, familiar pattern that’s easy for audiences to follow. Although the basic plot elements are extremely familiar (an ancient curse, a legendary object with unmatched powers, a comedic German villain seeking said object for world domination, etc.), there are enough moving parts within that plot to keep us engaged. As Frank and Lily navigate the twists and turns of the river, Jungle Cruise surprises us with a different kind of twist. The film sets up predictable action sequences and gags that we’ve seen in dozens of other adventure films only to take those sequences in a different direction. Each time that the characters find themselves in an all too familiar cinematic setup, a slight change of choreography leads to an unexpected result and a well-deserved laugh from the audience.
However, not every twist works out in the film’s favor. Jungle Cruise also attempts to redeem “the sissy” character, the loveless gay-coded stock character that was used as comedic relief in classic Hollywood films. Jungle Cruise introduces its “sissy” character, Lily’s brother MacGregor, with the usual gags and jokes, poking fun of his delicate sensibilities as Frank throws his trunks of “bathing attire and light reading” straight to the bottom of the river. Jungle Cruise attempts to undermine our expectations of this stock character by giving him a chance that most “sissies” from classic Hollywood films didn’t get - the chance to tell the audience directly (pretty much, anyway) that he’s gay. Disney has been crawling toward LGBTQ+ representation at a snail’s pace, but unfortunately, MacGregor is a step in the wrong direction. Although his open conversation about his romantic interests is a welcome change for Disney, it’s beyond frustrating to see an openly gay character provide comedic relief based on hurtful stereotypes and kindly step out of the limelight as the straight man and woman work together to save the day.
As for the other characters, Jungle Cruise creates a delightful role model for kids in Dr. Lily Houghton. Emily Blunt is flawless, as always, creating a fun and adventurous character that will keep young audience members engaged. Kids will enjoy following along with Dr. Lily Houghton’s adventures, but adults who have seen the same type of independent scholarly feminist who insists on doing things her down way in dozens of other children’s adventure movies will find the character a bit stale. For older audience members, Lily might trigger a few eye rolls as she braves the dangers of the jungle with the brains of a Cambridge scholar, a heart of gold, and a singular irrational fear that gives Frank the chance to save her with his masculine skill. Still, if you’re going to use stock characters in a family movie, it’s best to cast crowd-pleasing favorites with engaging personalities like Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson. If you can make it through Frank’s cringy dad humor, Jungle Cruise makes for a fun, entertaining ride.
In Theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access July 30
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."