Review: Disney’s Jungle Cruise Is A Much Better Movie Than It Should Be
When it comes to films based on Disney Theme Parks attractions, the track-record is surprisingly spotty. Not counting for sequels, only one film franchise has been a success. Unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, films like The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears were not commercial successes. (Despite any particular affection people of certain generations have for those films.) Still, the studio keeps going because when it does work, the attraction movie franchise machine really works. Thus, Disney’s Jungle Cruise is another hopeful shot across the box office bow to find a franchise based on a water ride. Personally, I had incredibly low expectations for this film, expecting it to be among the ranks of films like the recent Dolittle. While both of these films will charm kids who watch them, Jungle Cruise has a spark that other films of this kind often lack.
One thing that endears the film to me is that it reminds very much of the action comedies I’ve grown up with, themselves inspired by 1930s and 1940s adventure serials. Dwayne Johnson plays Frank, a riverboat hustler who is very comfortable in the Amazon jungle. Emily Blunt plays a determined botanist named Lily Houghton chasing a legend about a magical flower that cure all disease. Also, worth noting, is that Jack Whitehall plays McGregor, Lily’s brother and the most prominent gay character in a Disney film like this. (Also, Paul Giamatti is there as the villainous Mr. Nilo, and he chews the scenery the way only a great actor can.)
Even if this film doesn’t do the box office numbers Disney hopes for, this is a film will be a success for how it rehabilitates the Disney attraction.
The Work Disney’s Jungle Cruise Has to Do Goes Beyond Box Office
Image via Disney Enterprises
The Jungle Cruise attraction at Disney’s theme parks is a very old one, which means that you don’t have to look very hard to find problematic racial and cultural depictions. Thus, this film’s release is meant to coincide with the reopening of the ride with those depictions removed. Even better, kids who see this film will probably want to go on the ride it’s based on, simply because the movie is just that fun. With the sole exception of a bit of (unnecessary, in my opinion) opening exposition, the film’s first act is brilliantly paced with many action sequences. A hallmark of these adventure serial-style pictures is a legendary myth, some kind of McGuffin, and a lot of physical violence.
There are some other cultural issues in the film worth noting. This is a film that is all about colonialism, but they never talk about it. There are a number of antagonists in this story, some even directly-related to the topic. Still, I think the movie does get around this pretty expertly by making the stakes very personal. There is a sequence with indigenous Amazonians, and the film makes a mistake in not tying at least one of those characters more closely to the central group. Still, the final determination on how this story plays is left up to other reviewers and audiences than me.
Nonetheless, this is a film with heart, thrills, and has a rewatchable quality that many parents may one day come to regret.
Disney’s Jungle Cruise Review: An Excellent Comedy Caper
Image via Disney Enterprises
One thing this film doesn’t do is take itself too seriously. In a way, this helps explain why the storytellers made the decisions that they did. Like the Indiana Jones movies and the turn-of-the-century Mummy films, consequences and the “why” of it all is not something we are overly concerned with. Jesse Plemons continues his near-perfect streak of playing incredible villains. The storytellers are unconcerned with his motivations, but he is easily the biggest snake in the film. (You’ll get that joke after you see the movie.) I don’t know why he sought the magical prize our heroes did, but in this case not knowing helps you focus on what a total jagoff he is. He’s the sort of over-the-top bad guy that would have fit right in a serial from the early days of movies.
The central characters are immediately likeable, and the film succeeds in that ethereal quality of “selling” that this group of disparate folks would become friends. Similarly, there remains tension and conflict throughout the movie, but the core group chemistry is fantastic throughout. The other thing this film excels at is the action sequences. They are visually dynamic, and James Newton Howard’s score perfectly amplifies that. The music feels simultaneously familiar but is, of course, wholly original to Jungle Cruise. Director Jaume Collet-Serra paces the action and propels it forward in a way that just brought a smile to my face. As a certified sucker for a by-the-seat-of-your-pants caper, this film delivers in every act.
The visual effects are excellent, though there are CG animations that, well, look like CG animations. The creatures especially don’t quite make it out of that uncanny valley. But, anyone who hits this movie for that is just looking to nitpick. Jungle Cruise is a truly fantastic family-friendly adventure.
Disney’s Jungle Cruise will debut in theaters and on Disney+ premier access on July 30, 2021
What do you think? Share your own reviews of Disney’s Jungle Cruise in the comments below.
Joshua M. Patton is a father, veteran, and writer living in Pittsburgh, PA. The first books he read on his own were comics, and he's loved the medium ever since. He is the greatest star-pilot in the galaxy, a cunning warrior, and a good friend. His book "What I Learned: Stories, Essays, and More" is available in print from Amazon and from all electronic booksellers.