Determined to find a tree that holds mystical healing properties, Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) enlist the help of Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) and his steamboat to take them deep into the Amazon jungle, but will have to battle an unhinged German monarch (Jesse Plemons) and cursed conquistadors...
If you're of a certain vintage, there's a good chance you'll remember a programming strand on RTÉ Two / Network Two called 'The Big, Big Movie'. It was effectively a two-hour block on a Saturday evening where the national broadcaster would show matinee adventures like 'The Golden Child', 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', 'Labyrinth', 'Willow', and so on. Were it released in 1981 instead of 2021, odds are you'd find 'Jungle Cruise' in this programming slot. It's not that 'Jungle Cruise' is as good as 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', but rather that it's trying to evoke the same feeling of adventure and excitement.
Dwayne Johnson's deadpan comedic beats, for example, might be a nod to the real-life Jungle Cruise in Disneyland, but they just as easily work in the context here. Emily Blunt's willingness to fling herself across the screen and smash through windows and chairs puts her on par with Harrison Ford. Even Jesse Plemons' outrageously corny German accent is equally reminiscent of the countless British actors through the years who have played fiendish krauts on screen. None of the performances could be considered new or fresh, nor indeed could anything about 'Jungle Cruise' be said to be groundbreaking.
It's not that kind of movie at all. It is unashamedly a Saturday matinee, with a big, loud score, a huge canvas to play it over, a mythical treasure at the end of a thrilling, death-defying journey, and all of it headed by some of the biggest actors in the world. It's exactly the kind of movie - not film, movie - that Disney knows how to make, and make well. It's formulaic, yes, but when it's this fun, does that really matter? For his part, director Jaume Collet-Serra understands the assignment and knows how to craft this kind of movie. There might be something of a workman-like quality in his movies, but they have all had a broad appeal with audiences and that's what 'Jungle Cruise' has - a broad appeal to family audiences. Is it going to be a chin-scratcher, and contend with the dark legacy of colonisation and the Global North's role in plundering the Amazon? Will it draw influences from Werner Herzog's 'Aguirre, The Wrath of God' in how it portrays the violence of nature? No, of course it's not, and you'd be stupid to think it would.
Instead, 'Jungle Cruise' chugs along its course, offering thrills and spills, annoyingly funny puns, absolutely zero chemistry between its leads, an extended cameo by a scoundrelous Paul Giamatti, and complete disregard for physics. In what world, other than this one, could a boat fly through a building and still manage to keep on going? 'Jungle Cruise' isn't concerned with these things because it's a spectacle. Like 'Pirates of the Caribbean', its fellow park attraction-turned-movie franchise, odds are that the eventual sequels of 'Jungle Cruise' will not live up to what's going on here.