For moviegoers of a certain age, Jungle Cruise is going to feel pleasantly familiar. Similar to a theme park attraction from one’s youth, older millennials with kids of their own will be quick to notice the overt “homages” to Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz’s Mummy movies; they’ll certainly be reminded of Disney’s other successful adaptation of a Disneyland classic, with grotesque enemies resembling the cursed pirates of the Black Pearl; and there’s even Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson himself, still making jungle life look good almost 20 years after The Rundown.
Yet if they also are able to take the grandparents to the cinema (or just a Disney+ couch), they might recognize the real magic emanating from this utterly delightful adventure: In its heart of hearts, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise is a throwback to old school Disney escapism and the type of movies greenlit when Walt was still alive. The film truly does pull from nearly every Hollywood era, but it’s all in service of ultimately good-hearted fun where A-list actors like Johnson and Emily Blunt smolder and charm their way through an exotic adventure for all-ages. This stays true even when their characters’ journey hits occasionally choppy waters.
That voyage begins in London where Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton is determined to finish her family’s quest. At the height of World War I, Lily is a woman ahead of her time with a PhD and an eagerness to wear trousers instead of dresses. When men try to inevitably put barriers in her way—like a nondescript all-male academic society which forbids her membership—she gets around them, quite literally when she breaks into that institution to borrow a key to a magical MacGuffin.
This heist quickly takes the good doctor and her feckless brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to the Amazon rainforest and closer to Lily’s dream of finding a lost temple and a mystical tree therein, which is said to have strange healing powers. It also eventually puts her on a riverboat belonging to Frank Wolff (Johnson), a gruff and faintly dishonest tugboat skipper who initially sticks his neck out for no man. Or woman. But when Lily offers to pay top dollar—and reveals the German army is after her in a submarine!—Frank agrees to take the less scenic route upstream.
From its setting to the early framework of putting Johnson and Blunt on the same steamboat, Jungle Cruise borrows most heavily from John Huston’s The African Queen. As with the new movie, that 1951 classic pivoted on the unlikely casting of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as budding oil-and-water lovers out on an unforgiving waterway filled with dangerous wildlife, and even more dangerous Germans. Also like The African Queen, Jungle Cruise works best when it relies on the shockingly appealing chemistry of its stars.
Typically cast as cartoonish he-men, Johnson visibly savors a character who is still larger-than-life, and yet also something of a scoundrel who can brood as often as he flashes that patented childlike grin. He even appears to channel a bit of Bogie in his early scenes, playing a feigned weariness that just makes audiences love him all the more when he inevitably does the right thing. Blunt, meanwhile, proves again why she doesn’t need a cape to seem powerful on-screen. By instilling Lily with a quick-witted intelligence and contagious enthusiasm for everything she attempts, Blunt appears to be having more fun on-camera than any film since Mary Poppins Returns—only this is a decidedly giddier time for the audience too.
Whenever Glen Ficarra and John Requa’s screenplay is allowed to play out in its purest state, Jungle Cruise is an outright joy to watch. You see it every time Johnson and Blunt banter about his love of pun-heavy dad jokes, or how she starts calling him “Skippy” after he nicknames her “Pants.” On paper, a romantic pairing of these two stars might raise an eyebrow, but each actor’s charisma is as wide as their river. So perhaps it should’ve been obvious that when together, theirs would be a pleasure cruise.
Of course this being a modern Disney blockbuster, it is not only old school Hollywood formula at play. And, sadly, not all of the newer elements make for as enchanting a ride. While nearly all of the action in the film suffers from the glossy sheen of CG-enhancement to the point of distraction, at least for the first half of the picture its couched in a rip-roaring swashbuckling aesthetic. Submarine torpedoes are narrowly averted! Jungle vines are swung on!! A leopard literally starts a ballroom brawl!!!
Less winning is the almost certain studio note to include something “supernatural” and digitally enhanced. Despite Jungle Cruise having perfectly good militaristic German foils to play off of—which always worked for Indiana Jones—the studio nevertheless clumsily throws in undead Conquistadors from antiquity, and whose cursed powers look an awful lot like Bobby Cannavale’s digital add-ons when he played the thankless baddie in Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The superfluous subplot is all the more baffling when Jesse Plemons is in the wings providing an amusingly camp villain named Prince Joachim.
The film’s cluttered tripping over antagonists suggests there’s a committee room somewhere in the bowels of Burbank which never made up its mind. Perhaps that’s also the reason Whitehall’s brother character completely fades into the foliage after the first act.
Jungle Cruise is not a perfect movie, but it’s a perfectly good reason to go back to a multiplex this summer. More than anything Disney has released in ages, the picture recalls a time when Walt could get talent like Kirk Douglas or Julie Andrews to show up for a yarn that evoked the grown-up entertainments of their era: Winsome performances and travelogue vistas selling an adventure more than any special effects. And Johnson and Blunt’s affect is so good on this thing, whether they’re fighting flesh-and-blood enemies or each other, that it makes you hope we’ll see more attractions like this in the summers downstream.
Jungle Cruise opens in theaters and on Disney+’s Premier Access on Friday, July 30.