JUNGLE CRUISE. Somewhere in another corner of the Multiverse Marvel/Disney's Loki series has failed to help me conceptualize, there is a version of me with the wherewithal to join a friend at the movie theater to enjoy The Green Knight and the glory of Dev Patel in period costume. But you're stuck with this me, the one who drooped over our rising COVID-19 case numbers on Friday and lost the will to endure a moment longer in my outside clothes. The one who instead found a spot on the living room floor with the kids to stream Jungle Cruise.
Having wrung all it can from the creaky boats, island sun and Johnny Depp (himself having taken on more water than a PR team can bilge pump out), Disney seems to have finally jumped ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to another classic theme park attraction: the Jungle Cruise. And at a moment ripe for globe-trotting summer movie escapism, (mostly) bloodless action/adventure and easy charm, when there's no way in hell I'm pushing through a turnstile into a crowded theme park, Jungle Cruise and its charismatic cast delivers. No waiting in line, either.
In 1916 London, excluded from a dusty, all-male explorers' society, the intrepid Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) has her far less intrepid brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) plead in her stead for access to an arrowhead she believes will lead her to a tree yielding petals that can cure any illness. Like Ponce de Leon in Florida, a troupe of Spaniards were lost to the Amazonian jungle searching for the tree, which is dismissed as a fairy tale by the society. No matter. Lily swipes the thing from the old codgers and the murderous Prince Joachim (a very pink Jesse Plemons) and heads for Brazil, brother in tow. There she is semi-hoodwinked into hiring Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a broke tour guide/conman with a sputtering engine in hock and a penchant for puns. Pursued by the prince in his submarine (shh ... never mind how he got it in the river) and cursed explorers, they head through rapids and a hail of blow darts, poring over maps and solving riddles as they go.
The nostalgia machine is firing on all cylinders in Jungle Cruise, from the animated planes and boats drifting over vintage maps to the early Spielberg adventure vibes of the conquistador narrative — it could have just as easily been Indiana Jones sweeping in to chase down apocryphal treasures. The hulking Johnson testing the seams on Humphrey Bogart's striped shirt from The African Queen (1951), not to mention his hat and kerchief, feels like more wink than nod to Old Hollywood. So does the running joke about Blunt wearing trousers, much like Bogart's co-star for that picture Katherine Hepburn. There's in-house nostalgia, too, with the Johnson running the full Disneyland schtick for tourists, complete with crude animatronics and shills in fake tribal costumes. (The comically blunt Trader Sam, played by Veronica Falcón, could use more screen time but is thankfully less of a throwback to Indigenous roles past.) Street and aerial views of the river town, docks and boat chases capture that artfully aged and supersaturated look of immersive theme park sets, too, which is what the movie is so clearly striving for as flocks of tropical birds swirl across the screen as if to guide us to the gift shop.
While the pirates have left the port, the cursed conquistadors hearken back to the crusty and tentacled monsters of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and action director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows, 2016; The Commuter, 2018) keeps to similarly clockwork pacing and slick editing. As a minor side antagonist, Paul Giamatti is excellently sweaty and fuming. Plemons, on the other hand, seems to struggle equally with his accent and overly tight uniform. Whitehall hams it up as an aristocratic fish in muddy river water, though it's hard to watch the scene in which he reveals his homosexuality with what's meant to be period obliqueness, and not imagine a board room of heterosexual executives weighing its marketability vs. potential backlash.
The overqualified Blunt is, as always, a pleasure to watch, both for her easy banter with Johnson, fraternal chemistry with Whitehall and effortless adventuress cool — it's a relief she's allowed the same book smarts and physicality Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones enjoyed instead of being saddled with klutziness as Rachel Weisz was in the first Mummy movie. (A library set piece in which she employs a rolling library ladder to make off with an artifact calls to mind what might have been.)
Johnson may not sell Bogart's indifference to noble causes but he shows up with exactly what he asked to bring: grinning bravado, comic timing, lighthearted action chops and at least one scene emerging from the water in a clinging, transparent shirt. This is not the movie for him to expand his range. We came to drift along the Disney-fied Amazon on a boat propelled by his cartoonish charm and see him and Blunt prevail without too much complication. And this boat runs on rails. PG13. 127M. BROADWAY, DISNEY PLUS, MILL CREEK.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.