The effortless chemistry of the two leads elevates a high-concept romp to something truly special.
- 🌿 The action and adventure are fun and inventive.
- 🌿 Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson have so much charisma and chemistry that it's hypnotic.
- 🌿 Jesse Plemons is hamming it up as the villain, and we love him for it.
- 🌿 Jack Whitehall's character feels like a third wheel.
- 🌿 Metallica's "Nothing Else Matters" is prominently featured for some reason. Good song, but extremely distracting in this particular movie.
At the risk of sounding like the old person shaking their fist at the sky, we sure don’t get adventure films like we used to. Some of the most beloved films of the late 1990s and early 2000s were star-studded rollicking yarns, like 1999’s The Mummy and 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean, themselves throwbacks to the likes of Indiana Jones and the Golden Age adventures of Errol Flynn. Somewhere along the line, this kind of unadulterated fun went out of vogue, but thankfully Jungle Cruise is here to reignite this style of filmmaking, bringing the immense charisma of Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt in service to a story that embraces its theme park attraction origins and delivers the kind of spectacular adventure yarn that could stand to make a comeback.
In 1916, scientist Lily (Emily Blunt) and her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) are in search of a mythical plant called The Tears of the Moon, purported to only be found in a remote, unknown part of the Amazon River and to possess the mythical ability to cure any ailment. They enlist the help of Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a riverboat captain who gives underwhelming boat tours to tourists whilst delivering puns so bad that his passengers beg him to stop. Frank knows the river better than anyone and desperately needs the money Lily offers for his services, but he finds Lily’s enthusiasm for discovery difficult to trust, while Lily can’t shake the feeling that there’s more to Frank than his fast-talking, self-serving persona.
The adventure pits the trio against the perilous dangers of river rapids, the machinations of a mad German prince (played by a marvelously eccentric Jesse Plemons) trying to take the mystic plant for himself, and a gang of river-cursed 400-year-old conquistadors doomed to live in forms like a sentient skinbag full of snakes, or a living honeycomb, bees and all. The setpieces are imaginative, the stakes are high but never so dire as to lose their sense of joy and wonder, and Jungle Cruise really leans into being a spectacle above all else. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, injects his action experience from Liam Neeson thrillers and some light body horror elements reminiscent of his early career, but all in service to a high-budget action-comedy that feels designed to be a crowd-pleaser without explicitly pandering.
But all the technical competence and computer-generated ingenuity wouldn’t be worth much without some astounding character work to back it up, and this is the core of Jungle Cruise’s appeal. There is undeniable exuberance to seeing Emily Blunt strut around as a determined explorer unwilling to admit when she’s over her head, just as much of a blast as it is to see Dwayne Johnson bring his casual charm to a grifter with mysterious motivations. Their playful antagonism is a perpetual riot, both in terms of written dialogue and natural comic chemistry, embodying larger-than-life personalities that make us empathize with them as much as they make us laugh.
The weak link is, unfortunately, Jack Whitehall, and the film seems to acknowledge that fact while not necessarily knowing what to do with him. Whitehall’s performance is not without its own humorous charms, but MacGregor’s main narrative purpose is to be an effeminate, posh counterpoint to his more masculine-coded, pants-wearing sister, a joke that quickly grows tired until MacGregor is quietly shuffled into the background of most scenes. The gendered stereotype-flipping gets drawn into even sharper focus with the revelation that MacGregor is gay and a victim of institutional discrimination, which on the one hand is at least a somewhat explicit exploration of queer identity in a Disney film - though the word "gay" is frustratingly never actually uttered - but on the other hand is embodied in a character who is almost totally extraneous. One imagines that he was conceptualized at some point as a comic relief character for more serious leads, but the overwhelming personalities of Blunt and Johnson are more than Whitehall can keep up with, leaving him feeling largely vestigial. A CGI jaguar better supports Blunt and Johnson's dynamic without uttering a single line of dialogue.
There are some technical quibbles that bear mentioning as well in spite of how effective the filmmaking is otherwise. Some effects shots are explicitly made to be viewed in 3D, popping toward the camera with all the subtlety of a dart flying at your face, and the effect is more hokey than exciting. The score is also somewhat lackluster, aiming for epic but falling somewhere short of generic without a novel hook to elevate the action beats to the next level. The closest the music comes to a memorable theme is the bizarre inclusion of a reworked orchestral version of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters,” a choice so strange that its distraction outweighs any novelty.
These faults don’t prevent Jungle Cruise from being a blast, though. This is the kind of film that used to be the embodiment of blockbuster cinema, a silly, over-the-top adventure with characters who are having just as much fun exploring their surroundings and each other as you are watching them. The effortless chemistry of the two leads elevates a high-concept romp to something truly special, and we can only hope that any eventual imitators learn the right lessons.
Jungle Cruise releases to theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on July 30, 2021.
Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.
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