Disney struck gold in the 2000s when they brought their famed “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride to the big screen launching a massive franchise in the process. The studio seems to want to revisit that winning formula with its latest ride-to-screen adaptation “Jungle Cruise” which takes elements from the Disney ride and adapts them into yet another swashbuckling fantasy adventure that harkens back to the adventure films of old why still managing to stick to many Disney conventions. The result is an entertaining romp with likable stars and characters and plenty of energy but lacking in originality. Sadly, it’s far too comfortable sticking with the standard tropes the genre and its studio love to employ wrapped up in an entertaining package that ends up being just fun enough to maybe keep you from caring about all its clichés at the end of the day.
“Jungle Cruise” stars Dwayne Johnson as Skipper Frank who is hired by Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) as they embark on an adventure through the jungle to find the legendary Tree of Life that sprouts a healing flower also capable of ending curses. Along the way they contend with natives, wildlife, treacherous waterways, a German aristocrat (Jesse Plemons) hoping to use the tree’s powers to win World War I, and a group of cursed conquistadors led by Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez). There’s a lot going on in this movie and, sadly that’s to the film’s detriment as it often finds itself struggling to stay focused and can make some of the lore hard to follow. While it’s not as all over the place as it could be, “Jungle Cruise” juggles way too many things at once trying to be the next “Pirates”-esque franchise, pay homage to the ride, develop its characters backstories, and having one too many villains when either the German or the conquistadors by themselves would have sufficed. In fact, the conquistadors would have been my preferred villains as they get a developed backstory that helps add some complexity and motivation. The German antagonist actually awakens the conquistadors to do his bidding when the story could have easily found a way for the conquistadors to awaken and have them be the main threats especially after the movie’s big twist in the second act reveals more about their curse. Overall “Jungle Cruise” feels like a movie that rolls with the motions and tries too hard to emulate everything else that has worked in the past, including from Disney, when it didn’t have to be.
However, even knowing I was being spoon-fed the same tired standards of both the fantasy and adventure genres I had a lot of fun with this movie. I was rarely, if ever, disconnected from the experience. I found myself pleasantly invested the entire time thanks in no small part to the engaging and charming performances from Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall that anchor this movie. While it definitely takes creative liberties to stretch the ride’s concept into a feature length film, including adding so much of its own mythology that it eventually becomes an experience merely inspired by the ride at best, seeing the callbacks to the attraction including Johnson leaning heavily into the real-life skippers’ tendencies to make bad puns and the appearances of things like a jaguar and Trader Sam which are staples on the ride helped make this is charming tribute to its source material. The energy and pacing also worked for me as the film rarely goes more than a few minutes without kicking things up a notch and yet it still finds time to explore many of its characters and explain the mythology surrounding the setting even if its convoluted. There’s always something happening or being built up to which can often detract from a film, but “Jungle Cruise” honestly feels like it’s getting shit done which made for a pleasant two hours of escapism at worst. Director Jaume Collet Serra has made a career out of movies that lean heavily on pulse-pounding energy or anticipated thrill and his talents shine here taking a simple idea and providing an experience that feels comfortably familiar.
Even still there’s a lot wrong with this film that keeps it from being anywhere close to a must see experience. This is, at its core, a very safe movie with derivative story elements, unpolished and unrealistic CGI, and a screenplay that could have used a bit more inspiration. It’s actually shocking to me that it took three people to write this film considering how much of it we’ve seen before, even just in Disney properties. But I also must admit this wasn’t designed to be a work of art. “Jungle Cruise” is a good example of how some movies are just made to entertain and help viewers escape into an adventure and it accomplishes that mission nicely. One could easily sit in on this film and see it as a tribute to the adventure films of old and all the things that make fantasy adventures so enjoyable. It’s interesting to note that some films, namely “Dolittle” from 2020, have done very similar plots and failed while others, like “Pirates”, have been superior. “Jungle Cruise”, through direction and writing that remains safe but actually tries to entertain with what it has, finds a happy medium where it’s comfortably safe without feeling like a retread wearing its cliches like a badge of honor which, as I’ve said many times, often works better than if a movie embraces cliches and then acts like it’s above them. “Jungle Cruise” knows what it is and is happy being exactly what it needs to be, for better or worse.
“Jungle Cruise” has its problems, and plenty of them, but the enjoyment really comes from how many of those issues you can overlook in favor of the little things it offers. This is a satisfying homage to not only a classic Disney ride but the fantasy and adventure genres overall with a delightful trio of leading heroes to hold it all together. Yeah, it was definitely a stretch to take “Jungle Cruise” and turn it into the movie, but I think the film finds a fun balance between charting a new path for the property while also acknowledging what makes the ride itself so beloved. This could have definitely been much worse and that might be the best compliment I can give the movie at the end of it all. Personally, I thought it was well paced and the energy made it a genuinely charming ride all its own even though it is clearly a derivative experience. It never felt like a true waste of two hours but a perfect example of how some movies can work as solid opportunities for escapism. It’s certainly a middle-of-the-road final product but one I wouldn’t mind experiencing again in the near future.