Movie review: Disney’s ‘Jungle Cruise’

When I first heard that Disney was making a movie version of the theme park ride “Jungle Cruise,” my initial response was a skeptical, “Really?” And then I actually watched the trailer and my skepticism transformed into, “Well, this actually looks quite delightful.” The historical setting, over-the-top action/adventure sequences, and entertaining banter between Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson reminded me of Pirates of the Caribbean, and I decided right then that I would give this movie a fair chance. 

I watched Jungle Cruise at my local theater this weekend, and I can confirm that it really is quite delightful. Now, I’ll add a quick caveat to that recommendation: if you’re excited by the sentence “this movie feels like a cross between Pirates of the Caribbean and the 1999 version of The Mummy with Brendan Fraser, with a dash of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone thrown in,” then yes, Jungle Cruise is the movie for you. You’re going to have a blast. However, if that comparison makes you more wary than thrilled, your experience watching Jungle Cruise may feel like taking a ride in a leaky, not-quite-seaworthy boat.

When I got back from the movie, my husband told me he’d heard that Jungle Cruise did not get great reviews, and I pulled up Rotten Tomatoes to prove that at 63%, it still qualifies (just barely) as “fresh.” I used to feel a lot more insecure about writing glowing reviews of movies that critics didn’t love, as if the fact I loved a not-so-well-reviewed movie meant that my cinematic taste was a bit suspect. 

Then, after I decided several years ago that my favorite Star Wars movie was the much-discussed and continually controversial The Last Jedi, I realized that when it comes to entertainment, sometimes you just love what you love, and you shouldn’t let other people make you feel bad about that. Not every movie has to be ground-breaking cinematic art; sometimes you just need a fun movie that will entertain you and make you laugh, and that’s exactly what Jungle Cruise did for me. 

One of the best decisions that Jungle Cruise makes is setting the story in 1916, rather than the present day. I love films with period settings, and a Jungle Cruise movie set in modern times would not have worked nearly this well. Emily Blunt plays a botanist named Lily Houghton who uncovers an artifact that will lead her to the legendary Tears of the Moon, an ancient tree whose blooms have the power to heal any illness or break any curse. 

Naturally, she’s not the only one who’s seeking this natural wonder. A German prince and a trio of cursed conquistadors also want the Tears of the Moon for their own purposes. 

Lily and her brother seek the help of a local guide named Frank (Dwayne Johnson), who reluctantly agrees to help them search for this treasure. Although Lily and Frank immediately clash, arguing over just about everything, they grudgingly come to respect each other as they journey deep into the heart of the Amazon jungle. 

I wouldn’t have guessed that Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson would have such great chemistry, but the two of them are obviously having a blast playing off each other. Their bickering and ongoing banter was one of my favorite parts of the movie (as well as Frank’s series of delightfully terrible puns, which are a nod to the original ride). 

Action/adventure + a touch of the supernatural has long proven to be a winning formula (as seen in examples like the previously-referenced Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean series). The cursed conquistadors in Jungle Cruise did feel the slightest bit derivative of the undead skeletons in Pirates of the Caribbean, but the film added in a few unique twists that kept these characters interesting. The cursed conquistadors are like zombies whose bodies have blended with elements of the jungle (such as a swarm of snakes or bees), which is actually pretty terrifying. There’s also a surprise involving Frank’s character that *almost* took me out of the film, but it ended up working pretty well in the context of the overall story.

The film could have relied a little less on CGI overall, but I didn’t mind it too much. In a movie that features a pet jaguar and magic flower petals, realism was never going to be a top priority. Also, James Newton Howard gives the film a lovely, sweeping score that adds to the feeling of high adventure. 

Overall, I really, really enjoyed this movie, and this is maybe the most straight-up fun I’ve had watching a movie in theaters this year. While I’ve only ridden the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney World once and don’t necessarily have deep nostalgia for the ride, Pirates of the Caribbean was one of my favorite movies as a teenager (and still is), and I loved how watching Jungle Cruise reminded me of that movie. I know I’ve complained about unnecessary franchises in the past, but if Disney wants to make another action/adventure film with Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt as these same characters, then sign me up! 

Side note: When I pulled up the Wikipedia page for Jungle Cruise in order to write this article, I found an interesting bit of background information about the relationship between the Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Apparently, Disney began planning a Jungle Cruise film as far back as 2004, based on the success of the first Pirates film. Then the project went dormant until 2011, when either Tom Hanks or Tim Allen would have been cast in a starring role. It’s probably for the best that version fell through, because as much as I love Tom Hanks, that version of Jungle Cruise would have been a very different movie!

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