Given the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, you’d think that Disney would’ve attempted to make more movies based on theme park attractions. Then again, The Haunted Mansion was a missed opportunity, The Country Bears was one Walken away from complete disaster, and you all forgot Mission to Mars was even a thing. It’s not like the last two Pirates movies were anything to celebrate either, despite how much money they made. Jungle Cruise is thankfully closer to the first Pirates movie than the fifth. It doesn’t reach the heights of Jack Sparrow’s debut or some of the other adventures it draws inspiration from. Like 1999’s The Mummy, though, it’s a satisfying blend of fun, humor, and mythology.
Speaking of that Brendan Fraser franchise, it’s been over twenty years since Dwayne Johnson leaped from wrestling to acting in The Mummy Returns. Now Johnson is in the Rick O’Connell role as Captain Frank “Skipper” Wolff. Emily Blunt is perfectly suited to play Lily Houghton, an adventurous scientist that surely would’ve been played by Rachel Weisz back in the day. Lily even has a comedic relief brother named McGregor (Jack Whitehall), the most British Brit that ever Britished. While the characters are familiar, they’re all charismatically brought to life.
In a homage/parody of the original ride, Frank runs a jungle cruise with cheesy effects and even cheesier jokes. When Lily asks him to escort her and McGregor across the river, Frank must go from shoddy tour guide to Indiana Jones. Like Indy, though, Frank still has an antihero edge to him. Lily seeks the legendary Tree of Life and the healing powers that come with it. Yeah, that sounds a lot like the plot of Dolittle, but the animals in Jungle Cruise fortunately don’t talk… except Paul Giamatti’s parrot. More importantly, Jungle Cruise has something that Dolittle didn’t: charm.
Johnson and Blunt are irresistible in a romance that might not have the same impact as The African Queen, but they’re just as appealing as Bogart and Hepburn. Their adventures capture the spirit of the source material with exotic landscapes, a playful sense of humor, and several clever references. They even manage to work the native people into the plot. Given the controversy concerning the natives in the original ride, one might’ve expected the film to omit them altogether. It’s refreshing that Disney found a way to include them without going into problematic territory. Jungle Cruise might have rivaled Curse of the Black Pearl for the best Disneyland movie if it weren’t for one glaring problem: the CGI.
Going back to The Mummy Returns, there isn’t an effect in Jungle Cruise that’s as painfully bad as the CGI Scorpion King. Considering that we got Gollum the following year, though, the effects in Jungle Cruise feel behind the times. Some of the designs are inventive, especially a group of cursed Spanish conquistadors, although they all look half-rendered. Johnson is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood, but surely some of the $200 million budget went to the effects, right?
While the CGI is underwhelming and overused, the product design team still crafts a visually interesting film. Jungle Cruisealso benefits from being a colorful movie, which is a breath of fresh air given how gritty most blockbusters have become. The colors compliment the lighthearted story and charming performances. You can tell everyone involved had a good time making the film, especially Jesse Plemons as the villainous Prince Joachim. Like the ride it’s based on, Jungle Cruise is a self-aware voyage, and anyone willing to go along for the ride is guaranteed to have fun.