Originally slated for release on October 11, 2019 before being moved to July 24, 2020 and finally one year later to now, JUNGLE CRUISE has at last pulled up to the dock. But, like the Disney theme park rides of the same name that inspired this film, you may be wondering if it is worth the long wait to get on board.
There has never been an official backstory to the Jungle Cruise ride until now, and boy, did the film’s five writers go to town on this one. JUNGLE CRUISE is set in 1916 and the film opens with MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) making a plea to a group of esteemed scientists for funding to mount an expedition to the headwaters of the Amazon where, legend has it, there exists an ancient tree with unparalleled healing abilities — one that possesses the power to change the future of medicine. These aren’t Houghton’s words though, and this won’t be his expedition. Both belong to Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt, the A QUIET PLACE films; MARY POPPINS RETURNS), MacGregor’s older sister, who is an ambitious and fearless scientist and explorer. She’s a woman though, and in 1916, scientific societies are an all-male domain. While MacGregor is addressing his fellow scientists, Lily is upstairs in their archives intent on stealing an arrowhead from the Amazon that she believes holds the key to where the tree exists. Unfortunately for her though, the artifact was just secretly purchased by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons, JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH; I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS; VICE; GAME NIGHT; AMERICAN MADE; THE PROGRAM; TV’s BREAKING BAD), an equally ambitious German aristocrat who also wants to find the tree. (Yes, Britain was at war with Germany at that time so what was a high-level German doing in London, you ask? Just go with it as there are more curiosities to come.) After Lily gets to the arrowhead first, she and MacGregor hightail it to the Amazon River, as people regularly did back then, where she hires the dad joke-delivering skipper, Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson, BAYWATCH), to take them upriver on his ramshackle steamer to where she believes the tree is located. Frank has his own problems to deal with though. He owes money to… I’m going to say Italian?… Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti, SAVING MR. BANKS; CINDERELLA MAN; SIDEWAYS; TV’s JOHN ADAMS), who owns every other boat in the port town. With Nilo after Frank and Prince Joachim after Lily, the adventure only begins to get more complicated and dangerous as the story’s heroes also have to battle raging river currents, a waterfall (um, they’re going upriver, not down), a jaguar named Proxima, restless natives and an ancient curse that has trapped Spanish conquistador, Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez, JOY; TV’s AMERICAN CRIME STORY), and his men in the jungle for 400 years.
Plot holes aside, and let’s be honest, most people won’t catch them, JUNGLE CRUISE is a mildly enjoyable romp in the vein of Disney’s marketing juggernaut, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Johnson and Blunt are clearly having a blast with the material, and their chemistry together elevates the film to be more than it deserves to be. By a nautical mile though, the best thing about JUNGLE CRUISE is Plemons, who walks away with every scene he’s in. The film is worth watching just for his performance alone. Could a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination be in the cards?
Not surprisingly given the ride’s genesis, the film borrows most heavily from THE AFRICAN QUEEN, the 1951 Oscar winning film starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn, but the story has other cinematic influences that include the INDIANA JONES films (I was fully expecting Frank to say, “I hate snakes”), JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, MARY POPPINS and, of course, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES. The story also contains a few references to the ride, including an out-of-place hippo and a gag about the “back side of water”, which is often mentioned by the theme parks’ cast members. Of course, being a Disney film, JUNGLE CRUISE ticks all the boxes for inclusiveness even if it’s somewhat anachronistic. Here, a gay character decides the time is right to come out.
Without a doubt, JUNGLE CRUISE sequels are inevitable. As the ride traverses a number of jungle locales, we can expect future films to be set on the Congo, the Nile, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and, most definitely, the Yangtze.
JUNGLE CRUISE opens on Thursday (July 29th) in Hong Kong, and on Friday both in major markets around the world and on Disney+ with Premier Access. I haven’t been on the ride since I was five years old but, with the exception of Jesse Plemons, I think I enjoyed it more than I did this movie.
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