For several years now, Dwayne Johnson has been one of Hollywood’s unsung most valuable players. Exuding endless charisma, he turns even the most tedious film into something tolerable to watch. If he was a used car salesman, he could probably convince you that the lemon you are driving off the lot with is a Rolls-Royce without breaking a sweat. So it should come as no surprise that Johnson’s character in Disney’s latest adventure Jungle Cruise is introduced as a swindler who rigs his riverboat tour with theme park style theatrics to scam extra money out of his passengers.
As with many cinematic boat captains, Frank Wolff (Johnson) walks with a certain confident swagger knowing that he and his boat are the best when it comes to sailing the Amazon River, he just lacks the funds to keep it running smoothly. In debt to a harbourmaster, Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), who provided his vessel with a new engine, Frank believes he has found his golden goose in two siblings, Lily and MacGregor Houghton (Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall), who are in desperate need of transportation down river. Sizing up the pair as easy marks for his brand of parlour tricks, he writes them off as another in a long line of would-be explorers seeking the Tears of the Moon, a fabled tree in the rainforest whose petals have the power to cure all illnesses.
Little does Frank realize that Lily is far stronger and more determined than most people, especially men, give her credit for being. A female Indian Jones type, whose choice of attire in 1916 leads Frank to refer to her as “pants”, Lily is in possession of a rare arrowhead that could unlock the puzzle to finding the location of the tree. Long said to be cursed after a conquistador named Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez) let his greed get the best of him, the Tears of the Moon has attracted its fair share of suitors including Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a ruthless German aristocrat who has his own nefarious plans for the power it possesses.
As amusing as it is to see Plemons put on an accent and revel in his villainous role, he is simply not in the film enough. Instead of being the central foil for Frank and Lily, Prince Joachim must share time with the haunted souls of Aguirre and his crew who long to be freed from the curse. If this sounds vaguely reminiscent of another Disney theme park ride turned film, you are not wrong. Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise gladly embraces the same swashbuckling meets supernatural blueprint that the Pirates of the Caribbean and The Mummy franchises have created.
While not quite on par with the films that came before it, as many of the side characters like Nilo are underutilized, Collet-Serra still presents an entertaining film even when taking a well travelled route. Featuring plenty of thrilling action set pieces, Jungle Cruise manages to keep one engaged even when its script feels loosely patched together at times. By including references to ethnographic travelogues and several classic films, Collet-Serra constructs a film that is gleefully playful from beginning to end.
The light-hearted tone primarily succeeds due to the work of Blunt and Johnson, who turn some cringe-worthy dialogue into snappy banter. Neither are strangers to Disney family friendly romps, Johnson’s Frank is very reminiscent of his Maui character in Moana at times, but they both excel at what they do best here. Johnson’s gentle giant persona in the film nicely balances Blunt’s more risk-taking heroine. It should also be noted that Jack Whitehall is delightful in the supporting role of MacGregor. While the film could have explored his character even further, though it does a decent job handling his feelings about being ostracized due to his sexual preference, which is something you rarely hear discussed in a Disney film in any meaningful way, there comes a point where MacGregor no longer feels useful in the film.
Considering the caliber of actors littered throughout, Collet-Serra misses out on the chance to craft some truly memorable supporting characters. Still, there is plenty to enjoy here. Jungle Cruise is an entertaining ride even if it sails on choppy waters at times.