Where have all of the great adventure movies gone? Whatever one thinks of Brendan Fraser now, nobody filled the Indiana Jones shoes better than he did with 1999’s The Mummy and its superior sequel, The Mummy Returns, two great, swashbuckling and hilarious adventures with loads of CGI and even more personality. Disney’s Jungle Cruise wants to be this generation’s version of that, along with a healthy dose of The African Queen, but I’ll wager this is the one time when Fraser gets the pinfall victory over Dwayne Johnson.
Don’t let my Fraser-love fool you; Jungle Cruise is a rip-roaring blast of fun and romance, the kind of escapist fare that families can flock together for and everyone can enjoy. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (Hard to believe this guy directed Orphan!), the film takes place in 1916 when unappreciated scientist Lily Houghton, played with spitfire by Emily Blunt, looks to upstage the stuffy men of her field by finding a magic flower that legend says can cure any illness. Her sheepish brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) dutifully follows behind her, although he’d rather be enjoying a stiff drink or going to a party.
Immediately, we’re shown just how spirited Lily is as she runs circles around her chauvinist colleagues to steal an item crucial to locating the flower, said to be hidden away in the jungles of the Amazon. During her theft, she pisses off German Prince Joachim (a Hans Landa-esque Jesse Plemons) who hopes to use the petal power to aid Hitler’s rise to power. While in South America, she is repeatedly conned and swindled by Johnson’s Frank Wolff, a hulking riverboat captain who scams naive tourists with “dangerous” boat rides.
The film crackles with energy in these early scenes, as Lily and Frank banter back-and-forth in an effort to outwit the other. They aren’t playing on a level field, however. She needs Frank’s help to find the flower, and he’ll do anything for money, even go so far as to unleash a jaguar to tilt the odds in his favor. A lot of time is spent just trying to get Frank’s boat out of hock to the harbormaster (Paul Giamatti), a mini-quest in itself that involves explosions, and fights with bruising thugs on the docks. Frank gives Lily an endearing nickname, “Pants”, because of her liberal fashion sense that befuddled every man she meets. The two simply ooze romantic chemistry, with every jab stuffed with pent-up sexual energy. Even for a Disney flick, it’s pretty palpable.
Jungle Cruise swings, literally in some cases, from action setpiece to action setpiece, with barely a moment to take a breath. There’s a mountain of CGI to wade through, though, and it can be distractingly fake in the way Pirates of the Caribbean often did. But then, this is meant to be in the same in as that other franchise built on an amusement park attraction, so it makes sense Disney is sticking with the well-worn formula. The humor is much the same, Frank is just as much of a character as Jack Sparrow; the only difference is that Blunt’s Lily is really the one steering this ship. It’s her determination, smarts, and bravery that dives into unfathomably weird odds against 400-year-old conquistador/monster hybrids (one played by Edgar Ramirez), dangerous natives, hungry jungle animals, and even a submarine armed with torpedoes.
All of that said, I can’t fathom what went on in the minds of screenwriters John Requa and Glenn Ficarra for them to come up with some of the twists of plot. One, which totally reframes our idea of who Frank is, lowers the stakes drastically at a critical moment when the film needs an added sense of danger. There’s so much comical violence that Jungle Cruise ends up feeling too weightless, like those disposable Jumanji movies Johnson makes, and people absolutely love.
But when Jungle Cruise starts to go off-course, Blunt and Johnson are always there to set things right. Johnson’s oversized personality is right at home in a film that leaps off the screen with vibrant colors boundless energy, while Blunt throws herself into every moment with infectious daring. When things slow down, such as during a heart-to-heart moment with McGregor revealing his love for another man (making him Disney’s first major openly gay character) it hits home because we’ve come to care about this trio of adventurers. There’s no denying that Jungle Cruise is a rocky journey always on the verge of washing up ashore, but Blunt and Johnson are so great together you’ll be aboard for the long haul.
Jungle Cruise opens in theaters and Disney+ Premiere Access on July 30th.