The delineation between a theme-park ride and a feature film has been tested a plenty of times in the past, but Disney’s latest Jungle Cruise, a technologically modern, dramatically old-fashioned action-adventure film inspired by a long-running Disney ride, tests where your preferences may lie. The ride itself is a giant water tank stroll filled with imported plants and mechanical animals, yet still somehow offers up to be less artificial, more persuasively inhabited jungle scenery of the two. Fans of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, however, will probably want to spring for the longer, shinier, digitally enhanced version, perhaps hoping that, like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean movies, it will succeed in turning a slow-moving boat ride into an energetic, nostalgia-tickling cinematic diversion.
And Jungle Cruise, directed Jaume Collet-Serra, does make sure to reproduce some of the ride’s signature pieces in computer-generated form: the leafy overgrowth, the exotic wildlife, the stream of water and of puns, the latter of which is rattled off by the skipper, who is played by Johnson. But being feature-length, of course, Jungle Cruise does have to traffic niceties like plot, character and mythology, even if the result, is derivative to the point of being lukewarm. Johnson is Frank, the wily captain of a rickety Amazon River tourist trap, trying to scrap out a semi-honest living amid stiff competition from a local big-name (Paul Giamatti). Blunt plays Frank’s latest passenger, Lily Houghton, a high-minded English botanist who’s trying to find the “Tears of the Moon,” a legendary flower known for its healing powers. Fate brings these two stubborn individuals together for a long and bickering journey downriver, pitting Frank’s cynical selfishness against Lily’s naïve idealism.
The chemistry generated by all this verbal sparring isn’t trivial, and it powers this waterlogged star vehicle through its busy, barely coherent action sequences and messy plotting. It’s 1916 and WWI is raging, which at least partly explains Jesse Plemons’ partially joyful over-the-top turn as Prince Joachim, a mustachioed German villain who will butcher any person that stands in his way. He’s determined to harvest the Tears of the Moon before Lily does, even if it means steering a U-boat down the Amazon in hot pursuit.
Yet even with such period attachments, Jungle Cruise still has moments of nodding to a decidedly 21st century audience; from the addition of Lily’s gay brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to the film’s updating to the ride’s original rocky depiction of Indigenous people. The movie, through some clever tinkering turns its gallery of spear-branding headhunters into a sly joke at the expense of Western colonialist assumptions. The real villains here are Plemons’ power-hungry prince and his army of undead Spanish conquistadors, one of whom (played by Édgar Ramirez) is none other than Aguirre himself. That historical nod conjures some wishful Herzogian overtones in a movie otherwise conceived under the spell of The African Queen, Indiana Jones, Romancing the Stone and other films from an earlier era of cinematic adventure seeking.
To watch those films again may be to plunge back into a world of cheap jokes and some older attitudes. But it’s also to be reminded of what mainstream American movies looked like before the era of wall-to-wall visual effects, the kind that’ve turned the modern blockbuster into a shiny, increasingly soulless and sometimes flat-out ugly display. Romancing the Stone had live snakes and snapping alligators and a real sense of peril; this movie has a digitally created jaguar, among other computer-generated wildlife, and not a real thrill or scare among them. Jungle Cruise, despite its capable leads and its attention to detail, never feels transporting in the way that even mediocre blockbusters were once able to muster. In short, Jungle Cruise comes off as more an awkwardly staged mess that blunders into being less an expedition and more a pristine commercial tour.
Jungle Cruise is available to stream on Disney+ and is currently playing in Theaters nationwide, as of July 30