Synopsis – Based on Disneyland’s theme park ride where a small riverboat takes a group of travelers through a jungle filled with dangerous animals and reptiles, but with a supernatural element.
My Take – With ‘The Mummy’ series (including the lackluster Tom Cruise led 2017 reboot) and ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series finding themselves seeing diminishing results, it’s been a while since a swashbuckling adventure film graced the big screen, even though the new ‘Jumanji’ films cut it quite close. Hence the first thing director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, the upcoming Black Adam) is gunning for is to fill that blockbuster status void.
Based on the Disney theme-park ride of the same name that itself was originally inspired by director John Huston’s 1951 adventure The African Queen, the film is without a doubt desperate to recapture that spark right from the very first scene.
Even though it is far from the first Disney ride to be converted into a feature film, with the most successful example of the park-to-screen funnel being the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series, which over the course of five films managed a global haul of $4.524 billion, with the underwhelming Tomorrowland (2015) and the terribly disappointing Mission to Mars (2000), The Country Bears (2002) and Haunted Mansion (2003), not being some very good examples.
Thankfully, this one delivers on what its marketing promised by being a fun-filled, freewheeling adventure that should please kids and tickle the nostalgia nerve in adults. Sure, it doesn’t always work, as it mostly absent of original ideas, and the CGI is often shaky in an unpleasant way. But adventure films are meant to be escapism fun, a fact that this film nails perfectly on.
Set in 1916, during the Great War, the story follows Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), an explorer and researcher following in her father’s footsteps in searching for Tears of the Moon, a legendary tree, purported to exist somewhere deep in the Amazon rain-forest, the petals from which are said to provide healing qualities that could potentially change the medical world forever.
Now in possession of the arrowhead that she believes is key to locating the tree, Lily arrives with her brother/reluctant travel assistant MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) at the town at the tip of the river and end up hiring a rundown old boat with a rundown captain, Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), to take them on their journey.
However, while the Amazon River is a dangerous place, matters get complicated for them when Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German aristocrat who wants the petals so his country can win the war, begins pursuing them in a submarine. To top that off, Joachim has also revived Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez), a 16th century Spanish mercenary who along with his men, have been cursed by a local tribe to exist forever as nature/human hybrids and cannot travel far from the river, to help in hunting them down.
Moving at a swift pace, with fun and excitement around almost every bend with the exception of some goofy twists, this one is a very by-the-numbers adventure film, which sees the protagonist fight monsters made of honeycomb and mud, all the while trying to avoid run ins with a delightfully bizarre German noble. But for a film based on a theme park ride, this one is about as good as it can get.
Something which should come as no surprise given director Jaume Collet-Serra is responsible for some of the best thrillers of the past decade. Though, hearing The Rock rattle off the awful joke banter the ride’s skippers are famous for is worth the price of admission alone.
The film doesn’t hide the many influences that it’s pulling from, and that’s a key part of the charm. Here, director Collet-Serra and his team of writers John Norville, Josh Goldstein, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa and Michael Green lift off from a variety of influences, a dash of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), a sprinkling of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), and just a pinch of Romancing the Stone (1984).
I’m sure it’s not easy to come up with and adventure based on a 15 minute theme park attraction, but for the most part, they did a good job. Director Collet-Serra‘s horror background also lent itself to the impressive visuals of the creature designs as well as the darker portions of the film. In the sense, the villains are Disney scary, which means scary enough to frighten younger kids. Though if you have an aversion to snakes (like I do) or bees, you might want to cover your eyes.
Though the film is largely predictable, with final act dragging a little and has some disappointing CGI in places, the film manages to sell itself well enough to entertain for 127 minutes. It won’t wins any awards or stands the test of time, but it enjoys its status as a fun distraction and plays well enough to its strengths to forgive its flaws.
Performance wise, Dwayne Johnson is in his usual charming form, showcasing once again his very good comedic timing and action hero chops. However, Emily Blunt is the superior action star on show here, fearlessly fighting, jumping and climbing like a cynicism-free female Indiana Jones. The two share an infectious chemistry and make for a charming duo. Jack Whitehall is sympathetic and amusing, and nails his character’s coming out scene delicately.
Though Jesse Plemons is positioned as the main antagonist his presence and line delivery are hysterical. In comparison, Édgar Ramírez‘s intensity makes him a standout. Elsewhere, Paul Giamatti makes the most of his small part. On the whole, ‘Jungle Cruise’ is an enjoyable family joyride that makes a deft blend of adventure and humor.
Directed – Jaume Collet-Serra
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 127 minutes