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Disney has become the home of the movie franchise unlike any other studio, perhaps in history. The Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars have become the jewels in that crown, but between animated movies, and live-action adaptations of animated movies, there is little that Disney has done where it has not found resounding success on the big screen. Except perhaps one place. Disney has tried more than once to turn its popular theme park attractions into successful live-action blockbusters, and while it did find success with Pirates of the Caribbean, those films have been the exception that proved the rule. That in mind, while Jaume Collet-Serra's Jungle Cruise doesn't quite surpass that series at its best, it's the first welcome addition to the canon of theme park-inspired features since then.
Much in the way that the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie took its plot inspiration from one small part of the Disneyland theme park ride and then peppered the rest of the movie with references to it, Jungle Cruise is really only related to "source material" in that Skipper Frank (Dwayne Johnson) runs a river cruise for tourists that he litters with terrible, terrible, hilarious puns. Beyond that, the story is wholly original, and for the most part that's a good thing, as the movie doesn't need to try to turn the story of an eight minute ride into a movie that's over two hours long.
It's 1916 and Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) is a botanist in England who nobody will take seriously because she's a woman – forcing her to use her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) as a surrogate to try and get funding for an expedition to the Amazon and look for the Tears Of The Moon, a mythical tree that is believed to have healing powers. However, when that doesn't work, she steals an artifact that is supposed to aid her in finding the mysterious flora, and she and her brother take off for South America. There they meet Skipper Frank Wolff, who agrees to take them down river in search of their goal... for the right price.
There is more than just a dangerous river standing in their way, however. There's also a German prince (Jesse Plemons) who has his own reasons for pursuing the Tears Of The Moon. Oh, and also there's a curse surrounding the tree and Spanish Conquistadors who maybe aren't as dead as one might expect.
Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt have remarkable chemistry.
Jungle Cruise has a pair of powerhouse leads in Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, and any fun the audience has watching them appears on par with how much fun the two stars clearly had making this movie together. It's a scenario that we've seen play out a hundred timers before, where the two-hander leads begin at odds but eventually respect each other – except that Frank and Lily respect each other at the outset, even if they still drive each other crazy. It's a slight variation on the trope that allows the characters to share real, believable, moments together.
The interaction between these two characters is the core of the movie and it carries most everything else with it. Like a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland and their hilariously terrible puns, that performance can make or break your experience on the ride, and Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt make this a Jungle Cruise you'll want to book.
A few words should also be spared for Jack Whitehall as McGregor. The role could easily have been rendered superfluous in the story, but instead Whitehall also has a lot of fun in his own right. Also, yes, the character is gay, and while that fact isn't strictly important to the plot, it is a subject that is addressed within the film using actual dialogue between centrally-framed, named characters, and it feels like a progressive step forward.
Jungle Cruise is non-stop action.
The other major element that comes as fast as the jokes is the action. Jungle Cruise rarely lets more than a few minutes go by without a new action sequence, and they're just as fun as everything else in the film. Dwayne Johnson, of course, is always great when things get physical, but Emily Blunt is no slouch here. She's right there with her muscle-bound co-star every step of the way.
Jungle Cruise has great villains, but perhaps too many of them.
The fact that the heroes are so much fun to follow is good because Jungle Cruise's biggest weakness comes with its villains. The obstacles standing in the way of our heroes come from a variety of sources: the jungle itself, other people, supernatural creatures, and even the ulterior motives of the good guys. The problem is that we end up with so many different obstacles standing in the way that none of them are given enough time to develop.
Edgar Ramirez's Aguirre is a character with a tragic story that makes him a compelling antagonist, and Jesse Plemons' German prince takes over the movie every time he's on screen. They're both interesting and entertaining bad guys – so much so that you only want more from each of them. Letting one of them be a focal point, and holding the other for the sequel, and one hopes there will be a sequel, would have been preferable.
In the final analysis, Jungle Cruise, like the attraction itself, is a fun ride and one you'll remember when it's over. These are characters you'll enjoy spending time with, and if the movie is a success, you'll look forward to seeing again in future sequels cruising down other rivers in other jungles. I'll follow this one for Niles, and Niles, and Niles.