Released: 29th July
Seen: 12th November
The history of movies based on theme park rides is littered with dull trash that offers nothing exciting. Think about it, with the exception of Pirates of the Caribbean and the recent Muppets Haunted Mansion, there aren’t exactly a lot of theme park movies that turn out to be passable let alone actually good. This would explain why, when the announcement of a Jungle Cruise movie was made, it was met with a collective sigh and many people preparing for it to suck… and now it’s out, up on Disney Plus without the premium price and oh my god how is this thing so good?
Jungle Cruise follows Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), a doctor of botany who is constantly met with adversity due to the rampant sexism of 1916. She only manages to make any impact by having her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) take her place at certain meetings and talks. Sick of being ignored, Lily decides to hunt out the legendary Lágrimas de Cristal Tree which is said to have magic petals that can cure all known diseases. Surely getting one of those would get Lily into high society where she wants to be, so, along with McGregor, she hires a boat that’s owned and run by Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) and soon this trio heads off on a quest that will not only put them up against the Jungle itself, but against ghosts from Frank’s past and the expectations of modern society… also a lot of piranhas.
So, if one were to be extremely glib you could just call Jungle Cruise a knockoff version of 1999’s The Mummy and call it a day. It’s basically got the same structure, from the woman fighting against the sexism of the day to the charming explorer played by the biggest star of the time to the quippy sidekick who’s more than a little flamboyant and the bad guy who sometimes turns into either creatures or sand, depending upon the situation. It’s stunningly similar and that could be a mark against it… except Jungle Cruise does all of that, modernises it and makes it feel fresh in ways that it had no right to.
The stunning thing about Jungle Cruise is that its simple story and broad characters allow it to really have quite a lot of fun. Sure it has the nods to the original ride that people who can afford to go to Disneyland will love, but it doesn’t exclude those of us who’ve never been able to make it to the happiest place on earth. It treats those elements of the ride as fun nods for those who will understand them but it never lingers on them to a point where it alienates people who don’t get that specific reference.
Every scene of Jungle Cruise is either a barrage of great jokes or some of the best boat-based action that’s been in a film for quite some time. It’s kind of stunning how easily the film slips between comedy and action without ever feeling out of place. Even when things get serious and dark, both figuratively and literally, the film earns it and manages to make it all feel completely natural even after an hour and a half of puns and double innuendo (seriously, there’s an entire scene that’s just an elaborate dick joke and it’s impossible to stop giggling once it hits you that they snuck that into a kids’ film).
What makes Jungle Cruise work is the incredible chemistry between our three lead actors who all deliver something special. Emily Blunt continues proving how great she is in more action oriented roles, you’re going to end up wishing there was another dozen films of her just hunting for treasure with her accent turned up to 11 and talking down to every idiot who gets in her way by the end of this film. Dwayne Johnson turns his natural charisma up all the way and makes even the lamest puns in the film sound incredible, and when he’s tasked to do the action scenes you explicitly hire Dwayne Johnson to do, he pulls them off with glorious aplomb. Lastly, Jack Whitehall… Ok, he needs his own paragraph because I have a lot of thoughts.
So during the press for Jungle Cruise it came out that Jack Whitehall’s character was going to be another in the long line of “First gay characters in a Disney film” and oh god does that always worry me (They said this with Beauty and the Beast, Onward, Cruella and probably half a dozen others) and oh my god they pulled it off. Yes, Whitehall’s character is something of a Dandy who likes his fashionable clothing and high end goods and if he’d just been that, he’d be in the fire with the other attempts at gay characters… but not only is he goddamn hilarious, he has possibly the most touching scene in the film where he talks about how being gay cost him family and friends. Disney put that in a film, they actually tackled what coming out in 1916 might do to a person and did it without making his sexuality the butt of a joke. Would it have been nice for a gay actor to play the role? Sure, but it’s still a great character who I honestly want to see more of (and if the sequel rumors are true, we will be seeing more… dear sequel writers, please give MacGregor a boyfriend in the next movie)
Even without the great cast, the action scenes in Jungle Cruise are just incredible. Every few minutes the film is throwing something exciting out, be it a grand underwater sequence where piranhas are a constant threat, to a submarine filled with Germans and bees chasing our heroes around the river. It’s big and fun and inventive, the kind of action scenes that are so over the top silly that you need to have a film with a very specific tone in order to make them fit and this film has that very specific tone absolutely nailed down. Honestly, if you aren’t enchanted by this thing within about 15 minutes then it’s probably never going to grab you, but if it grabs you then you’re in for one hell of a ride.
If Jungle Cruise ends up becoming the next big theme park ride film franchise, I will not be shocked because it is just endlessly enjoyable. Great action, a lot of great jokes, fun engaging characters performed brilliantly by an incredible cast… this film has absolutely no right being this good, it should have been a bland boring snoozefest and nothing more but someone along the way clearly cared and gave us a fun throwback to one of the modern action classics and updated it just enough to make it work. This should not be this good, but it’s absolutely fan-damn-tastic.