In normal circumstances, much would be riding on Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise, as it’s Disney’s best chance in a long while to create their first “new to cinema” live-action franchise outside of the MCU since National Treasure in 2004 and Pirates of the Caribbean in 2003. Those are just two obvious reference points for this fitfully amusing but ultimately hollow adventure comedy. The others are Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The African Queen, The Mummy (Stephen Sommers’ lusty swashbuckler version) and Romancing the Stone. However, despite a game cast and some moments of high comedy and knowing charm, the film never crafts an identity of its own. While enjoyable enough for kids, the Dwayne Johnson/Emily Blunt vehicle merely serves to remind you of the other, better movies that followed their path and became stand-alone works of art.
The film is based on the Disney park attraction, one noted for its skewed sarcasm and a non-stop orgy of groan-worthy puns and “dad jokes.” Set in 1916, Jungle Cruise stars Blunt as Dr. Lily Houghton, a brilliant and persistent botany expert trying to convince her chauvinistic peers to fund a mission to find the so-called “Tree of Life,” which is believed to possess healing powers. Meanwhile, Captain Frank “Skipper” Wolff (Johnson) owes too much money to the harbormaster (Paul Giamatti) and reluctantly agrees to transport the doctor and her brother/assistant McGregor (Jack Whitehall) into the dangerous jungle. Not only must they face off against the perils of nature, but the ambitious and downright villainous Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) is after the same treasure, hoping to use it to guarantee Germany’s victory in “the Great War.” So, yeah, this all sounds like a terrible place to beheaded.
Things get off to a solid start, with small-stakes adventures and groaner humor fashioned around the actual Jungle Cruise ride. But once our heroic trio our out to sea, it becomes a paint-by-numbers story, with the action quickly becoming gratuitous, frantic and narratively arbitrary. I’m not one to complain about “Too much CGI,” but there are too many set pieces that are essentially dominated by seemingly random effects-driven peril that will remind you of the first Jumanji. We came to see Blunt and Johnson in a comedically-tinged jungle adventure. The further it leans into “adventure” and away from “‘comedy,” the more generic and uninvolving it becomes. The two most recent Johnson-starring Jumanji flicks, for example, knew how to balance the two key elements. It’s a (reportedly) $200 million tentpole that would have been far more enjoyable as a “stretch your dollars” $90 million flick.
The plot comprises Dead Men Tell No Tales and On Stranger Tides with character types from The Mummy and ambitions to be Romancing the Stone. Without getting into a larger discourse, the movie is shockingly lacking in thirst, lust or sexual chemistry. Both Johnson and Blunt are ridiculously good-looking people, and they have fun sparring chemistry. But the film seems afraid that letting Blunt show a hint of lust will negate her “girl boss” credentials while trapping Johnson in an overcompensating-MeToo mentality of being unwilling to flirt. This is a problem because A) this is supposed to be a romance, and B) the movies from which it takes inspiration were lusty, thirst-driven adventures that were unafraid to indulge the “female gaze.” Many people implicitly and bloodlessly die in the PG-13 Jungle Cruise, but heaven forbid the doctor mentally dresses her skipper companion.
Where is the Disney that offered up a horny Orlando Bloom and a lustful Keira Knightley in a vibrant and epic Curse of the Black Pearl that earned its PG-13 while wrapping The Haunted Mansion in a cursed romance doomed by racism? Where’s the Disney that turned Maleficent into “Ms. 45 for kids?” and released an MCU movie (Iron Man 3) that filtered The Power of Nightmares into a comic book stew and turned one of the franchise’s most famous villains into bait-and-switch political commentary? Where is Disney that rose to the top in 2016 partially by being better (Pete’s Dragon), braver (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which killed off its entire cast) and more unapologetically political (Zootopia, which confronted white liberal prejudice) than its tentpole competition? Jungle Cruise is a big-budget Walt Disney adventure flick that feels like a G-rated Disney Channel original movie.
Yes, it’s great that Jack Whitehall’s character outs himself to a supportive Dwayne Johnson, in the best dramatic beat in the film both due to LGBTQIA representation (albeit a sexless one) and its value in justifying Blunt’s hostility and distrust. But that reveal, which could survive unedited on the Disney Channel and is stand-alone enough to get cut out in disapproving overseas markets, makes up the sum of the film’s nerve. It wants to be the next Indiana Jones or Romancing the Stone while being unwilling to commit to those films’ sweat-and-dirt adventure spirit and afraid to indulge in a little PG-rated, George of the Jungle-level thirst. It’s as sexless as the National Treasure movies, with only Collet-Serra’s horror sensibilities offering anything resembling a pulse in the film’s second and third acts. Lacking its own identity, Jungle Cruise most closely resembles the Pure Flix version of itself.