Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt on a Jungle Cruise.
M, 127 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
This theme-park inspired Disney feature offers a charming romantic couple front and centre and a sense of fun. If it tends a bit cumbersome at times, the spirited pair headlining the fantasy adventure lift it up and carry it forward.
The lead characters in Jungle Cruise were clearly inspired by The African Queen, the 1950s action-adventure directed by John Huston. It pitched a couple of memorable characters, played by Kate Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart of course, together on a riverboat during World War 1.
Jungle Cruise is also set in WWI, which is handy because it allows feisty Dr Lily Houghton, played by Emily Blunt, to channel aspects of Hepburn who was a missionary in a dress and bonnet in African Queen, but an actress well known for wearing trousers in other scenarios. Captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), skipper of the riverboat, sports a similar cap to the one that Bogey wore.
The movie gets off to a good start when Lily, a biologist from London, arrives at the edge of Amazonia, looking for a contact at a riverside bar who will be brave or foolhardy enough to ferry her into the unknown. The banter that develops between her and Frank let you know they are eventually destined for each other.
Lily has plenty to offer on a trip up the Amazon, being athletic and self-reliant, but she can’t swim
Frank, skipper of a sturdy riverboat, isn’t the contact Lily was seeking and his vessel has seen better days, but she chooses him anyway. He can wrestle jaguars and is just the kind of resourceful, competent male she needs on her dangerous quest for the legendary tree of life. This fabled tree is connected with the artefact, a spearhead, in her possession that she hopes will help lead her to it. A single petal from the tree will have a huge impact on medical science, and help to save countless lives.
It turns out that the jaguar wrestling that impressed is a ruse to impress, but Lily is not a woman to waver and she sticks with her choice. The jaguar, Frank’s pet in the film, was performed by a man in a jaguar leotard, and the creature was added in later with CGI.
Lily has plenty to offer on a trip up the Amazon. She doesn’t scare easily, she understands and respects the natural world, and she is athletic and self-reliant. She can also pick locks, and this sideline comes in handy but it is a disadvantage that she doesn’t know how to swim.
Her travel companion is her brother, McGregor (Jack Whitehall). A daft caricature, with his penchant for bow ties and jackets at dinner aboard La Quila he is a very broad joke at the start, but he demonstrates what he is made of and turns out to be good company too.
Out on the river, there’s a crazed German submarine commander (Jesse Plemons) who is also on a mission to find the tree of life. This obsessive Teutonic character is probably a dig at legendary German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, whose strange and haunting Amazon adventures, Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, were notoriously difficult to make on location in the Amazonian wilderness.
Nothing remotely sinsister or serious, just rollicking good fun
As if one nutjob wasn’t trouble enough in Jungle Cruise, there are reanimated Spanish conquistadors who have been languishing for centuries to get their hands back on their plunder. One of them, Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez,) wants to get hold of that spearhead too, but the Indigenous tribe who own it want to have what is rightfully theirs.
The Spanish-born director, Jaume Collet-Serra, does not have a strong filmography but his background in music videos and advertising has served him well enough here. Writers who contributed to the screenplay include Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, Logan).
The tone of Jungle Cruise recalls the kind of action adventures that headlined Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1980s, with nothing remotely sinister or serious. The more recent first Pirates of the Caribbean, by far the best, was similar before the franchise drifted off course.
At two hours’ running time, Jungle Cruise is certainly long. Yet there are chuckles all along the way, right until the final scenes back in London at the academy of science back that wouldn’t accept Lily’s credentials. Seriously, it’s a return to some rollicking, good old-fashioned fun.