As one of the most iconic and beloved attractions at the Disney theme parks, it was only a matter of time before Jungle Cruise was tapped for a feature film adaptation in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean. The formula couldn’t be more similar: a sprawling adventure with massive setpieces, supernatural elements and a healthy dose of humor, peppered with references to the ride (not to mention other Easter eggs for Disney fans) and fronted by a globally recognized star. But is the recipe still viable? Perhaps.
The opening montage — curiously set to an instrumental version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” which the soundtrack utilizes more than once — establishes the stakes: long ago, a band of conquistadors led by the fearsome Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez) traversed the Amazon in search of the legendary Tears of the Moon, believed to be a remedy for any ailment imaginable. Aguirre’s mistreatment of the local indigenous tribes caused the conquistadors to be cursed, trapped in the jungle for centuries and unable to venture beyond eyesight of the river.
Fast-forward to 1916, where a collection of artifacts belonging to an earlier expedition has recently been uncovered, including an ancient arrowhead believed to hold the secret to finding the Tears of the Moon. Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) manage to “liberate” the arrowhead from its new home in a stuffy London-based research society, running afoul of Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) in the process, who seeks the Tears as a means to ensure Germany’s victory in The Great War. The Houghton siblings escape to Brazil, where they hire an opportunistic riverboat captain named Frank (Dwayne Johnson) to guide them into the heart of the Amazon.
The original theme park attraction was inspired by The African Queen, the 1951 adventure film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, and Jungle Cruise isn’t shy about paying homage — so if the story of a brother and sister enlisting the aid of a seasoned skipper for a dangerous journey while pursued by a German enemy sounds familiar, rest assured it’s by design. Johnson himself cited the classic as one of the key influences on this adventure, along with the Indiana Jones films, which Jungle Cruise evokes heavily during its first half, albeit through a much goofier lens. Indy might have squared off against his share of Germans, but they were nothing like Plemons’ delightfully kooky villain, who just so happens to be the kind of bad guy to pilot a U-boat up the river, smiling from ear to ear while firing torpedoes and humming along to classical music.
The broad, overplayed physicality of the comedy and the groan-inducing jokes — mostly delivered with a wink and a grin by Johnson — perfectly capture the spirit of the Disney theme park experience, and in the early moments it seems like Jaume Collet-Serra is keen to embrace the borderline cartoonish attitude. But the introduction of darker supernatural elements in the film’s second half, along with some legitimately horrific adversaries, makes for a bizarre juxtaposition of tones that’s not entirely successful. These grotesque manifestations that arrive to menace our heroes feel like they belong in a different film — or perhaps a different franchise, as they’re not exactly dissimilar from the ghostly buccaneers of the Pirates series, but here they stick out like a sore thumb.
That said, Jungle Cruise still works much better than it probably should, thanks in no small part to its fully committed cast and a script that, despite its numerous contrivances, manages to pull off a surprise or two. Johnson and Blunt have wonderful comedic chemistry, and the unabashed silliness of the first hour is a blast, which helps offset the shaky second half. It may fall well short of the lightning-in-a-bottle success enjoyed by the original Pirates of the Caribbean, but it’s an enjoyable escape into the wilds of the Amazon — even if the CG animals are less convincing than their decades-old theme park counterparts.