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Review: ‘Jungle Cruise’ adaptation is a welcome change of pace for the modern blockbuster

If modern popular cinema must be beholden to the system of IP dominance that guides Hollywood today, I will gladly take more films like “Jungle Cruise” over another superhero spin-off or “John Wick” rip-off.

Disney’s adaptations of classic theme park rides have been few and far between in recent years, in part because they’ve spent the better part of the last decade incorporating their film franchises into their parks instead of the other way around. Historically, this type of adaptation has been forgettable: with the obvious exception of the hit-or-miss “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, only Eddie Murphy’s lackluster spin on “The Haunted Mansion” even immediately came to mind (all due to respect to Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” and the wild “Country Bears” flick that slipped my brain). 

Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff and Emily Blunt as Lily Houghton in “Jungle Cruise.” (Disney)

“Jungle Cruise” is a return to the theme park adaptation playbook, as Disney attempts to spin a narrative feature out of a pretty simplistic ride concept. In my childhood adventures at the Magic Kingdom, I only went on the Jungle Cruise ride once, so I can’t say I remember much beyond the famous animatronics and bad jokes. Theoretically, the good news about an adaptation of a functionally plotless theme park ride is that there’s a lot of flexibility in what you can create from the ride’s simple foundation. Of course, just as Gore Verbinski’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” threw in a few references to the ride to please the Disney faithful, director Jaume Collet-Serra still offers a little dash of what I guess could be considered “fan service” for lovers of the “Jungle Cruise IP” (if those fans exist in large numbers) in the form of direct references and bad jokes; fortunately, the contractually obligated puns are kept to a minimum.

But with a live-action rendition of the ride basically out of the way in the opening minutes, “Jungle Cruise” is able to spend much of its rather lengthy running time openly ripping off/paying homage to (the choice between those two phrases is up to you) classic adventure films: there’s a healthy dose of “Pirates of the Caribbean’s” ghost narrative and swashbuckling style; a clear replica of the main group dynamic in the Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz-led “Mummy” films; a dash of the Bogart/Hepburn flirtation in “The African Queen” (with a more contemporary feminist twist); a cartoonish German villain (Jesse Plemons) who feels like he stumbled out of Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark;” and even a little bit of Hawksian screwball for good measure. Whether you view this as a shameless rip-off of better films or a fun homage is contingent on how much you miss this style of film in the modern blockbuster landscape — and how willing you are to overlook or accept some clear deficiencies in the film’s pursuit of this style and tone. My misgivings here are far from nonexistent, but to avoid seeming as if I’m damning with faint praise, I must emphasize: Collet-Serra and his team pull it all off quite nicely. 

Jack Whitehall as MacGregor, Emily Blunt as Lily Houghton and Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff in “Jungle Cruise.” (Disney)

It feels a little perfunctory to list off all the influences, if only for the simple fact that they’re readily apparent in any summary of the film’s plot. Set during World War I, the film follows Emily Blunt’s Lily Houghton, an adventurer and scientist in search of a plant with the power to heal in the Amazon. As a woman, Lily has always been in an uphill battle with London’s scientific establishment, often using her brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), as a decoy to convince the stuffy old men that her quest for a mythic cure is real. When Lily steals a key artifact that can lead her to the tree, she heads to the Amazon with MacGregor in tow, hoping to charter a boat and make her way down the river.

In Brazil, she enlists the help of sardonic boat captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a bankrupt skipper and sleazy Amazon tour guide who’s always being hounded by the local businessman Nilo (a very sunburnt Paul Giamatti) for the cash he owes him. Though Frank is skeptical of Lily’s desired destination — and the treacherous journey they’re sure to face — the promise of cold hard cash is too much to turn down. Hot on their tail is Prince Joachim (Plemons), a German nobleman and military leader who hopes to use the plant’s unique powers to reign for centuries. However, what seems like a simple chase becomes infinitely more complicated as Lily makes her way down the river, discovering a curse dating back to the Conquistadors and an even more fearsome adversary. 

Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff in “Jungle Cruise.” (Disney)

Coming 18 years after “Curse of the Black Pearl” knocked everyone’s socks off, “Jungle Cruise” has the distinct advantage of not having to prove that a Disney ride could make a compelling movie. No, the primary obstacle that “Jungle Cruise” has to face is a slightly more compelling one: its status as a star vehicle for Dwayne Johnson. This is not inherently a bad thing. The Rock is really one of our last movie stars, and he has a unique image situated somewhere between light comedy (“Central Intelligence,” the “Jumanji” movies) and absurdist machismo (Luke Hobbs in “The Fast Saga”). He’s very good at getting old-fashioned movies made based on his presence alone, and with a few significant exceptions (the less said about “Baywatch,” the better), he’s remarkably consistent. “Jungle Cruise,” however, asks more from him as a performer, forcing him to be a romantic lead and a screwball charmer in the vein of Cary Grant, while also adjusting enough to account for the character’s unexpected backstory. 

On paper, the part demands a different actor: is the impossibly buff and cool star with the million dollar smile really believable as a hard-drinking, down-on-his-luck Amazon skipper who absolutely skips a few meals a week in favor of the bottle? No, not especially: we’re a long way from the sweaty body and stubbled visage of Humphrey Bogart in “The African Queen,” I can tell you that much. Frank probably should be less corny and more acidic and mean-spirited than he is here, but Johnson’s charm is used to great effect — and his relatively easy-going rapport with both Blunt and Whitehall keeps the film from ever buckling under the weight of his star power. It also helps that it’s really Blunt’s movie, and she knows exactly what to bring to her performance as the determined adventurer with a propensity for getting herself into tricky situations. As for Whitehall’s character… well, let’s just say I’ll be interested to see the critical response as this goes into wide release. MacGregor is the “first” openly gay Disney character, but it’s done so suddenly and euphemistically (as this Variety article notes, the word “gay” is never said, nor is it explicitly acknowledged that MacGregor is in love with another man) that I can’t help but wonder if anyone will be too pleased. On the flip side, Plemons is a joy, hamming it up at every possible moment with a thick German accent. 

A scene in “Jungle Cruise.” (Disney)

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has excelled in recent years as a B-movie director, developing a cult following among some film critics for his accomplished genre films. Collet-Serra has dabbled in horror (“House of Wax,” “Orphan”), Hitchcockian suspense (Liam Neeson vehicles “The Commuter” and “Non-Stop”), noir (“Run All Night”), and even a survival thriller with “The Shallows,” so a retro adventure saga like this fits perfectly with his track record and skills. It does, however, represent a step up into the blockbuster sphere, where he will remain for next year’s superhero saga “Black Adam” (also starring The Rock). I’m far from a Collet-Serra devotee, so it’s unlikely that I could point to serious distinctions between his style and this film, but the Disney style of big, CGI-heavy blockbuster filmmaking simply has its limitations. 

While it’s a very colorful film by modern digital cinema standards, featuring a fantastically vibrant London and some wonderful colors in the Amazon sequences, I’m just not a fan of how much CGI looks these days, of the plasticky, unmistakably fake sheen it adds to otherwise exciting or engaging moments. None of it looks real, and I’m growing weary of its prevalence. Perhaps more frustrating in the context of this film’s ultimate aims are some of the editing choices: though I’m pleased that the film seeks to channel the feisty back-and-forth of classic screwball, an early conversation between Frank and Lily at a bar demonstrates a certain level of formal incompetence. Rather than allowing Johnson and Blunt to deliver rapidly accelerating dialogue in a single take wide shot, there’s a rapid sequence of cuts within a 30-second scene, which fully lacks any sense of spatial cohesion or tempo. 

Emily Blunt as Lily Houghton in “Jungle Cruise.” (Disney)

Despite a few individual sequences that are undeniably messy and visually limited, the film is snappy enough to overcome any such disappointments; like Blunt’s Lily, it’s always cheerfully hurtling forward to the next big thing. I wish the action had a more visceral, tactile kick — again, the bland, bloodless action of CGI filmmaking is partially to blame — but there’s something to be said for sheer spirit, the kind of energetic movement that keeps the film fresh and engaging on a scene-to-scene basis. After all, who can resist a frantic and overtly absurd chase scene in the early goings? Accompanied by a solid score from James Newton Howard, “Jungle Cruise” is light and playful, keeping up a relentlessly fast pace right until it slows down at precisely the right moment.

If it ends on a slightly less thrilling note, with a big CGI climax that represents the film’s visual nadir, I’m still more than willing to embrace “Jungle Cruise” as a throwback blockbuster, one that wears its influences on its sleeve, has fun in the genre sandbox, and, most importantly, never takes itself too seriously. If Disney had their druthers, I’m sure they would love for this to become another franchise, especially since they’ve struggled in the past with turning their expensive live-action projects into continual cash cows (plus, I’m sure they’d love to stay in the Dwayne Johnson business). Regardless of whether that happens or not, “Jungle Cruise” deserves credit for standing on its own as a very solid outing.

Despite its gargantuan budget and supersized effects, the film’s aims, both tonally and narratively, feel modest in comparison to the ubiquitous world-building of modern genre films. It’s an adventure story with all the requisite ingredients, taking from the genre’s best and spinning something new out of it. In an age that sees every new superhero film relegated to being just another chapter in a bigger story — and when every fan wants the material to be afforded critical reverence as if it’s Shakespeare, Homer and Michelangelo Antonioni combined — it’s a delight to see a straightforward adventure riff on this scale, even if it is just another big advertisement for the House of Mouse. 

Star Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

“Jungle Cruise” releases in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access on July 30, 2021.

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