After the smash-hit success of Pirates of the Caribbean and the more luke-warm reception to Haunted Mansion years ago, Disney is having another go at making films based on beloved Disney park rides.
In Jungle Cruise, Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) leave England to go to the Amazon and search for a tree whose petals could revolutionize modern medicine. They must work together with skipper Frank (Dwayne Johnson) to survive the landscape, a foreign prince who wants them dead, and a set of cursed conquistadors.
Jungle Cruise is a Fun, but Not Exhilarating Ride
The film opens in the 16th century when a Spanish conquistador named Don Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez) is in search of the Tears of the Moon. The tree’s petals can supposedly cure any illness, injury, or curse. However, Aguirre and his men face many issues in the jungle and one by one are dying. A native tribe brings them back to health, but when they refuse to take Aguirre to the tree, he attacks them and burns down their village. The chief places a curse on them so that the men can never die or leave the Amazon River.
We flash forward to 1916 in England where MacGregor is presenting Lily’s research to the Royal Society, trying to pass it off as his own to avoid the bias that would be caused by Lily’s gender. She needs permission from the society to use the arrowhead that has been recovered on a previous mission to the Amazon which she believes will lead them to the tree. She hopes to change medicine forever and turn the tide of the war to Britain’s favor with the discovery.
However, the explorers recognize the research as corresponding to a paper previously submitted by Lily and turn MacGregor down. Rather than take no for an answer, Lily steals the arrowhead, making an enemy of Prince Joachim, a German nobleman who wants to find the tree himself. Arrowhead in hand, Lily persuades a reluctant MacGregor to accompany her to the Amazon.
Once there, they encounter Frank who makes a living taking people on boat tours of the Amazon, with many fake embellishments set up along the way. The punny jokes he tells are the clearest callback to the actual Jungle Cruise ride in the whole movie. I, for one, would have happily sat through another ten or fifteen minutes of Johnson cracking corny jokes.
After much negotiating and a case of mistaken identity, Lily arranges for Frank to take her and MacGregor to where she believes the tree is located. Before they can even leave the harbor, they’re nearly waylaid by Prince Joachim and his submarine who has followed Lily across the ocean in hopes of retrieving the arrowhead and finding the tree for himself.
In addition to Joachim and the cursed conquistadors, the trio must deal with waterfalls and trust issues. Lily and Frank, despite all their arguing, grow closer and begin to open up to each other. Anyone who loves an enemies to lovers romance will be thrilled with this part of the film. In fact, Blunt and Johnson and their banter are easily the highlight of Jungle Cruise. Luckily for the movie, their chemistry is fantastic.
Johnson may struggle a bit with the more dramatic acting required of him, but he delivers the jokes so well that it’s forgivable. Blunt is perfect in the role of the headstrong and intelligent Lily, aptly portraying both the comedic and the softer moments.
Unfortunately, Lily isn’t given much character motivation in the film. It’s unclear why she’s so dedicated to finding the tree other than having been told about it by her father and a general desire to save the world with it. I wish that they had given her a more specific motivation, like wanting to gain admission to the Royal Society despite her gender or having lost a parent to illness, which would have made the stakes feel higher.
Plemmons is clearly having fun as the campy Prince Joachim, even if his motivations are similarly underdeveloped. He is the youngest of Kaiser Wilhelm’s six sons and so easily could have been seeking to gain a better position or even just his father’s favor.
The real Joachim was an interesting, but tragic figure who eventually died by suicide at the age of twenty-nine after Germany’s defeat in the war and his family losing the throne. In 1916, he was actually being considered for the throne of Ireland by some the Irish republicans should Germany win the war and Ireland be taken over. His fictional counterpart is not quite this interesting.
The conquistadors are slightly more developed though they aren’t as hilarious or as menacing as Prince Joachim. Unfortunately, between the two sets of villains, the physical journey to the tree, and the romance subplot, the pacing of the movie can feel off at times.
Disney has once again made a statement about a character being “openly gay” in a film, though MacGregor never actually explicitly states that he is. Instead, he’s Lily’s reluctant companion, arriving with tons of luggage and obsessed with being well-dressed. He has a conversation with Frank in which he explains that he faced discrimination because of who he loved, but his sister supported him, though he never fully explains why. What is in the film is decent, though subtle representation. However, this is yet another example of Disney claiming to have achieved a landmark in LGBT+ representation that simply isn’t there.
The movie’s largest issue is its subpar CGI. The production design is actually decent when it’s practical, but much of the movie has a very fake sheen to it.
Jungle Cruise never achieves the heights of movies like Pirates of the Caribbean or The Mummy that it’s clearly playing off of. Despite that, it’s still a fun ride due to Blunt and Johnson’s chemistry and performances.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.