REVIEW: Jungle Cruise (2021)

Emily Blunt as Lily Houghton, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Frank, and Jack Whitehalll as MacGregor Houghton in Disney’s JUNGLE Cruise — Available now in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access — Photo: Disney / Disney+.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra — Screenplay by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, and John Requa.

There are many films that have been turned into theme park attractions as a direct result of their popularity. However, the reverse doesn’t happen successfully as frequently. We rarely see great films that are instead based on popular attractions. Disney did find that kind of success, when Gore Verbinski turned the Pirates of the Caribbean-attraction into a beloved film franchise. It wasn’t Disney first or last attempt at making a successful film out of one of their many theme park attractions, but they have all mostly failed to garner the same success that Verbinski’s beloved films did.

Some of the not-so-successful attempts include the Eddie Murphy-led The Haunted Mansion and Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise is based on the Disney attraction of the same name, and, even though it is not a true home run for Disney, I think it’s definitely the best of its kind since Verbinski’s swashbuckling action-adventure trilogy set sail.

Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise takes place in 1916, where sibling researchers Lily (played by Emily Blunt) and MacGregor Houghton (played by Jack Whitehall) have travelled to South America with a coveted arrowhead that they have stolen from a British academic association, as well as the German aristocrat Prince Joachim (played by Jesse Plemons). Prince Joachim and the Houghton are both searching for a mythical tree with healing powers, but for very different reasons with Lily Houghton, a botanist, being particularly intrigued by what the tree could do for the field of medicine.

In South America, the Houghtons come across Frank Wolff (played by Dwayne Johnson), who claims to know the jungle rivers better than anyone. Frank, who has several good puns or trusty dad jokes, specializes in these river cruises which are carefully scheduled by him to include jump-scares and surprises by way of puppetry and the like. But their journey is perilous, and it won’t be easy to find or reach the tree, especially because Prince Joachim has taken a crew and a submarine loaded with torpedos with him to South America, and he is even willing to free cursed undead conquistadors to get what he wants.

It is certainly true that film directors can make a name for themselves in a multitude of ways. While the Spanish-director Jaume Collet-Serra is perhaps not a household name yet, he has already made a lot of pulpy genre films that has proven that he is a very competent workmanlike director in Hollywood. His career perhaps doesn’t yet have the highs of several other directors, but, based on the fact that he finds consistent work, I would guess that he is regarded as a plug-and-play kind of director, who studios trust to nail the landing with genre films. Although his oeuvre — which includes films such as House of Wax, Goal II: Living the Dream, The Shallows, and The Commuter — perhaps mostly consists of B-movies (he has made several Liam Neeson action films), I think many of his films are more than serviceable, and Jungle Cruise, which was made from the biggest production budget of his career, is probably my favorite of his films thus far.

As is perhaps also the case with many of Collet-Serra’s pulpy B-movies, Jungle Cruise, however, is not at all unique. It is a sometimes delightful swashbuckling action-adventure film that is, admittedly, quite generic. It will remind you of everything from Indiana Jones to Luis Llosa’s Anaconda, but, more than anything else, Collet-Serra’s Disney blockbuster reminded me of Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean. Now, these are certainly not bad films to be reminded of — I like them all quite a bit — but there is a very fine line to walk when it comes to evoking other films. Because if you do this too much, then you may end up with a text that feels like a lesser imitation, which Jungle Cruise does. It is generic. It is formulaic. It does sometimes feel like characterizations and scenarios are identical to other characters and other scenes from other films.

In his review of The Mummy, the late, great Roger Ebert once wrote that “there is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it.” I feel similarly about Jungle Cruise. It is not original in the slightest, and it will eventually not hold up as well as it ought to, as it suffers from an over-reliance of CG-creatures that will certainly make it feel outdated long before Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean from 2003 will. But, at least to me, I think that Jungle Cruise has that same infectious charm and energy that other action-adventure films like it has. There are some neat touches here and there, such as an orchestral version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” and some very clever and cool-looking transitions.

Its characters, though generic, are brought to life in a very entertaining way. Dwayne Johnson delivers his character’s dad jokes in a humorous way, Emily Blunt is perfectly suited for her determined would-be adventurer character, and their back-and-forth banter just worked for me. Jack Whitehall plays MacGregor as if he was channelling both John Hannah from The Mummy, as well as his own father Michael Whitehall from their travel reality series Jack Whitehall: Travels With My Father. But Whitehall is also given the opportunity to add some heart and vulnerability to his character by way of a very good scene with Dwayne Johnson, in which MacGregor opens up about his own backstory, of which I wanted much more. Finally, I want to add that Jesse Plemons’ comedic antagonist performance is just delightful, and it perfectly complements the light-hearted tone that Collet-Serra’s film has opted for.

Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise is undeniably generic and formulaic, and it is very disappointing that it uses visual effects as liberally as it does since its CG-creatures are just never convincing enough. But Jungle Cruise is so much more than just the ‘backside of water.’ At its best, it is a very entertaining ride with fun characters and neat mythological world-building. It is in no way, shape, or form original and it probably won’t age all that well, but it is a fun summer blockbuster popcorn film and that is, ultimately, exactly what it was meant to be.

7 out of 10

– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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