Jungle Cruise is currently the #1 movie in America, which means ??? in the age of COVID when nothing is a hit but also nothing can really fail because business is nowhere near back to normal and hey, at least SOME people are turning up to the movies, even when the movie is available to stream at home. Based on the popular Disney World attraction, Jungle Cruise shares a lot of DNA with its fellow park ride-adjacent sibling, Pirates of the Caribbean. In fact, they’re basically the same movie, but Jungle Cruise has a coat of The Mummy paint slapped on it. Does that mean Jungle Cruise is bad? Not really! It’s probably not something adults are going to want to sit around and watch on their own—unlike The Mummy, which holds up—but it’s the kind of imaginative, fast-paced adventure story that ought to keep kids happy and drive family vacations to Disney World. Objectives achieved!
The movie is set in 1916, because when I think “fun for the whole family”, I think World War I. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is a botanist—get it? Lily? A BOTANIST?—who is barred from participating in Science because she is A Woman and it is Pre-Women’s Liberation. Lily’s scientific investigations involve the existence of a magic flower in South America, which might be one reason Science isn’t excited about her, but, if the legends are true, the flower has the power to cure virtually any ailment. Sounds like the Fountain of Youth, right? It kind of is! Jungle Cruise opens with an elaborate action set piece in which Lily attempts to steal a map to said flowers from a storage room that is like the library scene in The Mummy except bigger, louder, and longer because this ISN’T The Mummy and here’s one way to prove it: do MORE than The Mummy.
Armed with the map, Lily sets off for South America accompanied by her brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall, playing the latest of Disney’s first gay characters). This also sounds like The Mummy, I know, but don’t worry, it still is not The Mummy because McGregor isn’t just implied to be queer, he states it out loud, to another character, which would be more of a win if McGregor was played by an actual queer actor who could lend the moment some gravitas. Oh well! Maybe for Disney’s next first gay character! Also along on the trip is Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a hilariously beefy river guide with a little cap and a shanty-boat which he uses to give gullible tourists a rigged river expedition featuring many of the same gags used in the real theme park attraction. Corporate synergy!
Lily, McGregor, and Frank proceed down the river in pursuit of magic flowers, but they are being chased by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a comedically evil German who wants to use the flowers to help Germany win World War I. I am not being facetious at all when I say that Plemons is the standout actor in Jungle Cruise, the movie is infinitely better every moment he is on screen, and it is an issue that he is not on screen enough. Jungle Cruise wastes precious time that could have gone to Plemons on a secondary villain, a cursed conquistador called Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), who has been trapped in the jungle; he has merged with it and become a snake-man, a concept used to better effect in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Nothing against Ramirez but implying that conquistadors only invaded the Amazon basin because one of them was, like, SUPER SAD about his dying little sister is gross and weird and does not remove the imperialist bent inherent in a story about a bunch of white people rampaging through the Amazon in order to exploit a magic flower. No, the Metallica cover doesn’t make this sequence any better!
Also, Jungle Cruise attempts to fix the racist caricature of “Trader Sam” from the ride by casting a woman, (Perry Mason’s insanely compelling Veronica Falcón), as a capitalistic chieftess grifting tourists with Frank. It doesn’t work! Lots of misguided stuff happening in Jungle Cruise! They’re trying but some of this stuff is just inherently bad and cannot be fixed! Less culturally mortifying but also unfixable is the negative chemistry between Johnson and Blunt. These two are no Rick and Evie, and certainly not Indy and Marion. They’re fine sharing the screen as a couple of Type As who think they know best, challenging each other for leadership of the shanty-boat. Their relationship works as a kind of found-family sibling rivalry. But when it takes a turn for the romantic, they actively repel one another, to the point that I whimpered “make it stop” when they awkwardly mashed their faces together in an approximation of kissing. Honestly, Blunt has more charged interactions with Plemons, and it would have been easy to play Lily and Joachim as enemies with the kind of can’t-quit-you energy that drives fanfic writers wild.
I have been hard on Jungle Cruise today, but I, a woman with no children and no desire to see Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson mash their faces together, have zero reason to invest in this movie. Have you children, though? Not a bad investment, just be sure to counter the bizarre cultural programming of the Sad Conquistadors with some Real History about the devastating colonization of the Amazon. But as an adventure film, Jungle Cruise moves along quickly, flowing from one action set piece to another, breezily directed by Jaume Collet-Serra with an efficacy that carries the movie over the rougher bumps of the script (from Michael Green and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa). There are some charming moments—all revolving around Emily Blunt’s irrepressibly charming screen presence—and some genuine humor, mostly deriving from Jesse Plemons’ comedy villain performance. It’s hard to make colonization a cheery good time, but Jungle Cruise tries, dammit.