Title: Jungle Cruise
Release Date: July 30, 2021
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Davis Entertainment | Seven Bucks Productions | Flynn Picture Company
Disney theme parks typically adapt movies into attractions, but sometime it goes in the other direction, successfully with The Pirates of the Caribbean, and not so successfully with The Haunted Mansion. The Jungle Cruise was an opening day attraction at Disneyland in 1955 and actually was inspired by the True-Life Adventure movies, a series of nature documentaries that Walt Disney produced from 1948 to 1960, as well as the non-Disney movie The African Queen. The ride was originally planned to cruise past live animals but when it was realized they would mostly sleep during the day, they created audio-animatronic animals in naturalistic settings. Over time, the Jungle Cruise skippers began incorporating jokes and puns into their educational narration, and then some sillier scenes were added to the ride. All of this history is summed up well in a recent three part series of the Disney History Institute Podcast.
The Jungle Cruise seems almost destined to for film adaptation, the question is whether or not that adaptation was worth it. I’d say yes. Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt, returning to Disney after starring in Mary Poppins Returns) is an adventurous botanist pushing against the chauvinism of the scientific world in 1916 who goes to the Amazon to seek a legendary tree said to be able to heal all illnesses. She hires Frank (Dwayne Johnson, returning to Disney after starring in Moana) a punning trickster of a riverboat skipper to carry her up the Amazon to the tree. Along for the ride is Lily’s stuffy brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall).
The film is carried by Blunt and Johnson who have a great chemistry. The story is designed to undermine gender roles, but doesn’t make the mistake of pushing to far in the reversal. Lily and Frank each have strengths and they each show vulnerabilities. Even MacGregor proves not to be as useless as he initially appears. While Jungle Cruise is undeniably formulaic, there are some twists in the plot that are genuinely unexpecting. And as a delivery system for jokes and action sequences it is effective.
The downside of Jungle Cruise is that it is way too long. The movie may have been pared down if they chose one antagonist to develop instead of two. Instead the crew of La Quila have to contend with the German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) pursuing them in a submarine as well as the cursed conquistador Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez). For a movie set in Brazil, there is a distinct lack of Brazilians among the many European characters. Indigenous people are still represented stereotypically even if it’s done as part of another gag about reversing expectations.
Jungle Cruise is a summer popcorn flick with some underlying substance, but not too much that it goes beyond just being a fun ride. In that way it is a worthy of the Disney attraction that gave it its name.