‘Jungle Cruise’ Review: Get Me Off This Ride

It’s been almost 20 years since Disney captured lightning in a bottle by adapting a theme park ride into a feature film. That film was Pirates of the Caribbean, and it launched a world-wide phenomenon and a so-so franchise. Disney followed that up with other ride/attraction adaptions, including Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears, but none could recapture the magic of the pirates ride/film. Now, the House of Mouse is trying to do it again with Jungle Cruise, another film-based-off-a-Disney-ride, and this time, the actual ride is actually better than the movie.

Jungle Cruise stars Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt as Captain Frank Wolff and Dr. Lily Houghton. Frank is an Amazon river tour guide in 1916, giving adventurous tours of the dangerous river to wealthy tourists and avoiding his benefactor, Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), to whom he owes money. Lily is a doctor obsessed with finding a mythical tree deep in the heart of the Amazon that produces a special leaf called the Tears of the Moon, which can cure any disease and heal the sickest patient.

Frank and Lily in Jungle Cruise

Lily and her brother, MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), steal an artifact from the Royal Society of Explorers in London and head to South America to find the Tears of the Moon so that Britain can end the Great War. Hot on their heels is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a son of Kaiser Wilhelm, who wants the Tears of the Moon to help Germany win the war.

Lily hires Frank and his boat for the expedition, and they set off on a rousing adventure in that “classic” Disney style.

The core issues with Jungle Cruise begin almost immediately. It’s not just the over-the-top action pieces and the constant anachronisms — those are to be expected in a film like this. Jungle Cruise never gives the audience time to take in the myriad ideas the small army of screenwriters have crammed into this script. It never settles on one idea, and instead, we’re left with a smorgasbord of tired cliches done so much better in other Disney films.

A Conquistador in Jungle Cruise

On top of the Indiana Jones-like race with Germans to find the MacGuffin, Jungle Cruise tries to introduce a supernatural element, ala Pirates of the Caribbean, where three disgraced conquistadors from the mid-17th century are also seeking the tree to break the curse set upon them for trying to steal the Tears of the Moon from the tribe of the tree’s protectors.

These three… ghosts?… look incredible and could have been so much more, especially after some of the second act revelations, but the filmmakers fumbled the ball badly, and turned what should have been the best part of Jungle Cruise into depthless CGI creations that are simply devolved down to “bee guy,” “tree guy,” and “snake guy.” Snake guy is at least given a name, Don Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez), but any other characterization is lost to time.

Jungle Cruise also takes some liberties with the historical elements of the film. MacGregor comes out in the film as gay, which in 1916 Britain would guarantee him a prison sentence or castration (or both), but Disney’s attempt to be socially relevant supersedes that. There are also some issues with the roles of women and minorities that get glazed over for the sake of an inclusive “family film,” but rang hollow for me.

The biggest issue I have with Jungle Cruise delves into spoiler territory, so be warned — but I feel it must be said, so you’ve been warned.

Frank and MacGregor in Jungle Cruise

The end of the film see Lily give the Tears of the Moon to Frank to save him because she apparently loves him after two days of knowing him. Her original mission to find the tree to better the world is completely abandoned because of her selfish lust toward one man — a man who literally tells her he wants to die. This plot point made me generally angry, and any amount of fun I had with the film died with all the British soldiers who succumbed to the war because of this woman’s silly, unrealistic desires. For shame, Disney. For shame.

Johnson and Blunt play their roles well, with Johnson trading balls-to-the-wall action roles for dad jokes and family fare, and Blunt trying desperately to make something out of a listless, underwritten character who spends most of the movie making googly eyes at the boat captain and whose motivations change for the worse as the film goes on. Fellow critics have tripped over themselves declaring their love of the leads’ chemistry, but frankly (pun sorta intended), I didn’t see it.

Jesse Plemons’ German prince is a walking cartoon who is used as a plot device to move the story to different points without any characterization whatsoever. He’s German so he’s the bad guy. Simple as that. I actually feel I know more about Giamatti’s Nilo than I do about half the characters in Jungle Cruise.

An Amazon tribe in Jungle Cruise

Jungle Cruise was ably directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, a veteran of horror films like Orphan and The Shallows. You could tell he was having fun with the Conquistador ghosts and that part of the film, but the rest of Jungle Cruise is paint-by-numbers, at best.

The script by Michael Green, Glen Ficarra, and John Requa, based off a story by Ficarra, Requa, John Norville, and Josh Goldstein proves that too many cooks ruins the dish. Jungle Cruise has too many ideas on-screen for its own good, and nearly all of the problems in the film derive from the screenplay.

Jungle Cruise joins the long line of Disney park attractions adapted into feature films, and sadly, it’s on the lower spectrum of those projects. It’s a wholly forgettable exercise in trying to create a family adventure film for the Disney brand. A good cast and some interesting direction can’t overcome what is a joyless, cliche-riddled script, and the end result is that you’d be better off wasting these two hours standing in line for the Jungle Cruise ride at a Disney park than actually sitting through this film.

Jungle Cruise is rated PG-13 and is in theaters and streaming on Disney Plus with Premier Access now. All images courtesy of Disney.

Jungle Cruise is in theaters and Disney Plus Premier Access Now
out of 5

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