Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Disney is still in its fledgling era of turning their theme park attractions into films, reversing their typical formula of turning movies into rides. For every mega-hit like PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, there’s a mega-dud like TOMORROWLAND. Continuing to mine their own Imagineering IP (and, sure, why not?!) is JUNGLE CRUISE, which sees the popular, puntastic Disneyland ride from 1955 transformed into an expansive epic adventure. It’s the gloriously bombastic throwback blockbuster we’ve been missing for years, along the lines of THE MUMMY (1999), THE AFRICAN QUEEN, ROMANCING THE STONE and their own PIRATES franchise. Simply put, this is the most fun you’ll have at the movies all summer.
Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is a woman caught in a man’s world, struggling to cajole academia into taking her seriously, using her dandy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) as her mouthpiece. Yet she’s no damsel in distress. She’s got gumption. She’s a smart, sneaky and enterprising woman determined to get what she wants (and doing so without an ounce of pandering feminism from the screenwriters). She’s out to find a treasure of lore: the “Tears of the Moon,” petals from a mystical tree hidden away in the jungles of the Amazon that have the power to heal all ailments. Trouble is, many don’t believe it’s real and those who’ve previously sought it out, like obsessed conquistador Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez), have failed and become cursed for all eternity. She believes an ancient arrowhead is the tool to unlocking this mystery. And so does wealthy, eccentric German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who’s desperate to get his hands on the arrowhead and exploit the legendary tree for his own evil personal gain.
After absconding with the stolen arrowhead, she and her brother high-tail it to Brazil, procuring a tour guide to take them to the far reaches of the Amazonian jungle. Only instead of getting a captain who will make this sojourn smooth sailing, she hires fast-talking, arrogant hustler Frank Wolff (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), who’s also tried and failed to find the infamous tree. Time is of the essence, as legend says the tree is about to bloom, plus Prince Joachim is on their tail hoping to thwart their mission. So the trio hastily head off into adventure, encountering treacherous circumstances, indigenous folks and… the backside of water.
Blessedly, this feature doesn’t take itself too seriously. The filmmakers do delightfully outlandish things to lean into the fantastical elements, like having the main foe pilot a submarine down the Amazon. There are campy flexes that brilliantly balance out the more somber, sobering tones in the narrative, which deal with issues like sexism, homophobia and friendly betrayal. While the seriousness allows for character development, the silly is just as indelible. Johnson fights a giant CGI leopard in a bar, tossing it off him like a rag doll. That same leopard, later, gets drunk and barfs. He also pilots his rickety riverboat like it’s a muscle car in the FAST AND FURIOUS movies. Plemons, a mad genius who plays his character to the hilt, converses with bees.
The scope of the picture comes down to a few major things, like its imaginative world-building, fully fleshed-out characters and splendid sense of adventure. But most importantly is maintaining tone through the ensemble’s performances. Johnson and Blunt are a perfectly matched pair; funny, charismatic, swoon-worthy and sweet. In addition to their impeccable timing for screwball comedy, finding a crackling rhythm with their banter and repartee, they also bring a gentle, unforced poignancy to their roles, making the grand scale feel intimate and the character-driven action feel immediate. There’s a refreshing sense of equanimity in their hero moments where their teamwork pays off. Yet it’s Johnson who gets the honor of being the comedian to Blunt’s straight-woman, tasked to deliver all of the film’s ace puns – and he does so with aplomb.
That’s not so say this jovial B-movie romp is entirely perfect. Though the big action set pieces are cleverly constructed, they tend to be rather exhaustive, happening every 20 minutes or so. Although we’re having fun, a bloated feeling creeps in by the climax. Despite being plugged into this fantasy world, the CGI is a little ropey in spots and could use a little shoring up. The third act action sequence, while holding satiating payoffs to a few of the characters’ conundrums, isn’t quite as confident as the rest of the film’s bigger swings, faltering a smidge at layering in propulsive action.
Overall, however, any blights pale in comparison to the feature’s more enchanting and hugely entertaining qualities. And, similar to the ever-popular park attraction, this is a thrill ride you’ll want to see repeatedly.
Grade: 4 out of 5
JUNGLE CRUISE debuts in theaters and on Disney+ with Premiere Access starting on July 30.