Disney’s latest attempt at bringing a classic Disneyland attraction to life mostly succeeds with Jungle Cruise, anchored by charming lead performances by Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt as well as some clever nods to the original attraction and a sense of blockbuster adventurousness harkening back to big budget movies that were made before the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Based on one of Disneyland’s original attractions when the park opened in 1955, Jungle Cruise brings guests on an adventure through the Amazon river with Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a wisecracking skipper and Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt). Accompanied by Lily’s younger brother McGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall), they set off on an adventure to find an ancient tree with unparalleled healing abilities that could change the future of medicine. The characters are thrust into the jungle, encountering numerous creatures, perilous conditions and a competing Imperial German expedition that also has its eyes on the tree.
It’s pretty clear that Disney is looking to turn Jungle Cruise into another blockbuster adventure similar to how the Pirates of the Caribbean films first set sail 18 years ago. The franchise that turned Captain Jack Sparrow into a household name remained as Disney’s only success in bringing their theme park attractions to the big screen with films like The Haunted Mansion, The Country Bears and Tomorrowland missing the mark.
Thankfully, Jungle Cruise mostly succeeds thanks to the direction of one Jaume Collet-Serra, whose sensibilities for action and adventure filmmaking harken back to a time before the rise of the MCU, in which the focus on one singular story was key rather than needing to fit in with an interconnected shared universe or explicitly setting things up for a sequel. Watching this film, it’s understandable to see why Dwayne Johnson was eager to work with him again on his upcoming DC Extended Universe film Black Adam.
While the film doesn’t necessarily reach the same heights as this film (or its following two sequels), Collet-Serra’s approach to Jungle Cruise harkens back to the adventurous tone of Gore Verbinski’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Also similar to the first Pirates film is the introduction of its charismatic trio of leads. Captain Jack Sparrow, Will Turner and Elizabeth Swann became household names to audiences due to their actors’ respective portrayals, and while I’m not sure the Jungle Cruise trio will reach a similar status, the performances by Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt and Jack Whitehall really stand out.
Dwayne Johnson is ever-so charismatic as skipper Frank Wolff, who leads a seemingly menial life as a Jungle Cruise skipper. We see him giving tours to guests, similar to the skippers featured in the actual ride – complete with perhaps the ride’s signature feature: cringeworthy puns. Thankfully, Dwayne Johnson is not only on point with his comedic timing, but he has some entertaining banter with his co-lead Emily Blunt, whose Dr. Lily Houghton is clearly influenced by Indiana Jones in every way. The duo have a camaraderie similar to Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone, which is a clear influence on the story, and a particular sequence with the duo involving a dive down the river is a particular standout in their onscreen chemistry.
Jack Whitehall tags along with the leads on the adventure, holding his own for much of the film’s comic relief. As McGregor Houghton, you can feel his kinship to his sister Lily in their shared interactions – and given the character’s backstory that is revealed in a touching scene he shares with Frank, its pretty heartwarming. As for the supporting players, while much of the film’s antagonists rely too heavily on tropes, character actors Edgar Ramirez, Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti help elevate their otherwise conventional material. In particular, Jesse Plemons really pops in his mustache-twirling turn, chewing up scenery and stealing every moment he’s on screen.
Jungle Cruise nods to its roots as a classic Disneyland attraction quite well. As mentioned earlier, skipper Frank Wolff’s on-point delivery of cringeworthy puns is a highlight, but a few other elements of the attraction are brought to life wondrously. Disneyland fans will be excited to see actress Veronica Falcon bring Trader Sam to life, and certain iconography featured from the ride is realized to great effect, and in some cases its done for a wink and a nod to fans.
Jungle Cruise could’ve been improved significantly had the use of CGI been utilized better. VFX is often used in bringing some of the jungle’s creatures to life. In some cases, it’s understandable given the certain species involved being mystical. Unfortunately, in the case of some real-life animals including Frank’s tiger companion, it’s quite subpar. Given that the CGI exhibited in the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films still hold up to this day, one would expect for this modern Disney film to have better VFX.
VFX issues aside, Jungle Cruise is a charming family adventure thanks to Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction, charming performances from its cast, and the many clever nods to the original attraction that will leave the biggest Disneyland fans excited.