Jungle Cruise review: a decent enough trip up the river

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Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall and Dwayne Johnson lead Disney’s big summer theme park ride Jungle Cruise: here’s our review.

This isn’t fresh news, but Disney has something of a Pirates Of The Caribbean problem. As much as Marvel films swell its coffers, in the earlier 2000s it was action adventures headlined by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow that – irrespective of the sinking quality of the films – brought in handsome bounty. Its own imitation franchise, National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage, made a good fist of it all too.


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But with the Pirates series washed ashore for the foreseeable future, Disney has been trying to recreate the formula. Thus, take a different ride from its theme parks, add lots of CG, a movie star or two and a dose of ingredients from the Indiana Jones cupboard, and in theory, you get another hit.

Jungle Cruise, then, sees the most expensive movie star in the world – that’d be Dwayne Johnson – playing the cheapest cruise boat skipper in the Brazilian jungle. That’s useful for Emily Blunt’s Lily, who needs to travel across the rivers of the Amazon on the hunt for the Tree of Life (best not to explain, the film tries to a lot), with Jesse Plemons’ pretty bonkers German posh man in hot pursuit.

The adventure is a dangerous one as you might expect, and to say it wears its influences would be a sizeable understatement. Snakes come out of skull’s eyes, there’s an early gag lifted from Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, and some CG work that had me recalling the Pirates series. But it does press for identity of its own, and to my surprise, this is more of a three-hander than a Blunt and Johnson vehicle. From the start then, we get a sizeable dose of Jack Whitehall as Lily’s brother, McGregor.

In fairness to Whitehall – who has come in for a lot of unpleasant stick – McGregor as a character needs to be cowardly and irritating, and he very much manages to nail that. There’s a moment, well reported in advance, where McGregor sort of comes out as gay too, and the film stops for this particular scene. As it happened, my review copy of Jungle Cruise came with a watermark that had the date on it. It reminded me  that it was the year 2021, and that a Disney film was still struggling to actually say the ‘g’ word. Like much of Jungle Cruise, its heart is in the right place, but it comes up short.

Still, there’s stuff to like as well. An early scene setting sequence introduces us to Blunt’s Lily, and it’s got a terrific blend of action and playfulness to it. Furthermore, and it doesn’t take long, when the film puts Blunt and Johnson side by side, we’re in pretty safe hands. Granted, it’s not got the fun and zip of a Jumanji or Mary Poppins Returns, but Jungle Cruise is eager to please, and the top billed duo are at the heart of the fun stuff.

Because it’s also got a sizeable budget behind it – $200m, go the reports – it can also afford little distractions. There’s Paul Giamatti for instance, sporting a parrot and a bit of sunburn. Jesse Plemons as the aforementioned villain isn’t in it much, but gradually seems to get more insane whenever his submarine pops up. In the first half too, there’s a momentum and sense of fun that’s easy to get on board with.

The second half though, things run aground. For a start, there’s so much plot to get through, so much that needs explaining, occasionally punctuated by another snake popping up. Tellingly, my kids were more unnerved too by the creepy crawlies than they were any other foe the film tries to throw at you, and at one stage it’s as if they’ve tipped a bucket of computers on the screen the CG overload gets to much. Sadly, it’s not CG married to the visual panache of something like Cruella either. Instead, director Jaume Collet-Serra blinds us with colour and fast action, but not too much spectacle. A pity, because when he does stop and pull the camera back, it’s all quite something to look at.

What we’re left with is a film that’s an upgrade on any Pirates Of The Caribbean sequel of your choosing, but also a little way short of the lesser of the National Treasure films. I’d love it to succeed, because films of this ilk when they work are proven blockbuster fun. But I do wonder if Jungle Cruise may have benefitted by being just a little smaller. Half way through, I wrote on my notepad that I’d love to see a version of this with Emma Thompson and Steve Martin, for instance, and instantly to my mind that felt like a bit more fun than what we were getting.

For all the grumpiness of this review, Jungle Cruise is still a perfectly adequate film. You can’t throw so much money and so much talent and not have some things hit, and for the most part it knows how to entertain. Furthermore, it’s wise enough to wrap things up in just under two hours before the credits kick in.

But still: it does also fall a fair way short of its parts, its budget, and its potential. It’ll do, though. But $200m is a lot of money for ‘it’ll do’…

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