As much as Jungle Cruise owes its filmic inception to the success of fellow Disney-theme-park-attraction-turned-blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, this light-hearted, gloriously old-fashioned adventure is just as much in debt to such titles as The Mummy and The African Queen.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with honouring the spirit of those films in such a manner here, nor the cheesier ingredients of the ride itself – first opened at Anaheim’s Disneyland in 1955 – with “the eight wonder of the world” gimmick even given a hefty shout-out for the tickling of those familiar with the ride’s structure; for the uninitiated, it’s “the backside of water”.
Corny as these gimmicks may be, that’s entirely the point, and it doesn’t hurt that these one-liners are delivered by charm-personified Dwayne Johnson, the mountainous performer whose essentially made a career out of juggling action and comedy in equal measure without a hint of vanity to his presence. It’s entirely to the film’s advantage too that he’s paired with the equally endearing Emily Blunt, foregoing the damsel-in-distress routine one may expect as a capable cohort who’s more than proficient in rescuing herself.
Johnson’s skipper Frank Wolff and Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton are unwillingly thrust together when she travels from England to the heart of the Amazon in her bid to find a MacGuffin called “The Tears of the Moon”, a healing power of sorts born from a magical tree. Whilst we are under the impression it’s an excursion of medical necessity for her research, it’s little more than an excuse for the refined but resourceful Lily and the more reckless Frank to trade family-friendly insults and evade hoards of villainous-types also after the mystical object; Jesse Plemons as a deranged German aristocrat (just wait until you hear how he pronounces the world “jungle”) and Edgar Ramirez as a more supernatural existence tied to the Amazon the two main figureheads hoping to spoil Frank and Lily’s expedition.
As to be expected with films of this ilk, Frank and Lily start out not exactly warming to each other (she calls him “skippy”, he calls her “pants” due to her less-than-ladylike attire) but there’s always a slight smirk and a twinkle in their eyes to each trading blow that you know it’s only a matter of time before more romantic inclinations come forward. To the credit of screenwriters Michael Green (Murder on the Orient Express), Glenn Ficarra (Bad Santa) and John Requa (Focus) though, the focus remains solely on their relationship as expeditioners, with the romantic angle being more of a gradual, organic move, rather than a forced studio note.
Whilst the film itself can’t exactly be praised as an inspired product – the conversation around Lily’s brother (Jack Whitehall) and his homosexuality for starters has been wildly overblown – its leaning in to the corny, old-fashioned aesthetic of both its attraction ride origins and fellow films of a similar nature results in a certain yesteryear joy that’s been missing from the big screen. Perhaps a bit too dark and menacing at times for the younger crowds that are likely to respond with wide-eyed glee to the contained danger of the ride itself, Jungle Cruise is still a worthy voyage for those seeking formulaic pleasures; and, if nothing else, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more likeable duo than Johnson and Blunt, whose chemistry is as tropical, if not more so, than the sweltering jungle setting.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Jungle Cruise is screening in Australian theatres from July 29th, 2021. It will be available to stream on Disney+ with Premier Access* from July 30th.
*Additional fees apply to Premier Access