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Review: 'Jungle Cruise'

If you’re looking for a fun, family-friendly Disney summer adventure blockbuster, this is it.

If you’re a fan of fantasy adventure movies like Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Mummy (the1999 version with Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz), or Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), you’re in luck.

Disney occasionally turns to its own theme park rides for movie inspiration. I’m thinking of The Haunted Mansion (2003) starring Eddie Murphy, which unfortunaately was a major disappointment.

This time around, they learned from their mistakes and got it right.

Admitedly, Jungle Cruise is a movie that borrows a lot from other movies.

First and foremost would be the similarity to John Huston’s classic The African Queen (1951) starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn.

It’s fun to put two radically different people on a rickety boat in a godforsaken jungle, fraught with danger at every turn. It gets even better when you add a superstar cast.

And that is the case here. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt are arguably two of the most successful, most talented and most bankable stars in the business.

While that in itself might not guarantee success, it’s as close to a sure thing as you can get in the crazy world of Hollywood moviemaking.

They are perfectly cast in a movie that is well written and well produced, on every level. It’s a solid return to those summer blockbusters that are just plain entertaining.

Blunt’s character, Lily, is a female Indiana Jones. Like Raiders of the Lost Ark, it is a story set in the early days of WWII.

It’s a world of treacherous, bloodthirsty Nazis and menacing, marauding submarines.

Instead of a search for the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail, the mission here is to find a magical tree deep in the Brazilian rainforest whose precious petals have restorative properties that can save mankind.

Sean Connery’s movie Medicine Man (1992) had a similar premise. It’s not a new storyline.

In order to accomplish her mission of finding the tree, Lily and her brother need the services of a Brazilian boat pilot with nerves of steel. And that’s where Dwane Johnson’s Frank Wolff comes in.

He’s a colorful local captain with a tourist cruise scam that barely keeps him and his pet leopard afloat.

He’s a flawed but likeable scam artist who spews a steady stream of really corny jokes that are so bad they are actually funny. And while he pretends to be a dim-witted buffoon, it becomes clear that he possesses a knowledge and mastery of this terrifying corner of the world—a world in which everything wants to kill you and eat you.

Lily reluctantly realizes that this scoundrel is her only hope.

To its credit, Jungle Cruise delivers all the thrills and chills you want to see in a movie like this. On one level, it’s a churning, virtual, white water rapids roller coaster ride.

In a broader sense, it’s a story filled with twists, turns, surprises and revelations.

Through it all, Lily remains steadfast and tough.

She’s another addition to a growing list of strong female protagonists that have dominated Disney movies in recent years. I’m speaking of Pocahontas (1995) and The Princess and the Frog (2009), Brave (2012) Moana (2016), Beauty and the Beast (2017), and Mulan(1998 and 2020).

Keeping with the times, Disney is all about girl power.

In Jungle Cruise, Disney includes gay power as well.

Lily’s British brother MacGregor, played by Jack Whitehall, takes the wimpy brother/sidekick supporting character another step by coming as close to coming out as a character can do in a Disney movie.

It’s a sign of the times. And the times they are a-changin’ as Bob Dylan once sang; even for an entertainment giant like Disney.

Introduced as a scholarly, soft-hearted brother who packs way too many trunks of clothes for his jungle excursion (not unlike the millionaires or the movie star on Gilligan’s Island) he evolves into a more formidable member of the team who packs a hard right hook of a punch.

He rises to the occasion in the final reel and slips the bonds of stereotyping. It’s a refreshing moment for everyone awaiting the introduction of a character like this in a Disney feature film.

While Jaume Collet-Serra gets high marks for the energized direction throughout the movie, he slips a little in the fight scenes which fall back on the chaotic flash and trash style that we see in so many movies like this that revert to quick, unrelated shots and rapid-fire editing to create excitement.

The result is a confusing mess, and that’s the case here. Well-staged fight sequences and action sequences are hard to do. Stunt coordinators turned directors do them best, as is evidenced in the John Wick movies.

The other glaring flaw in the film is the less-than-believable digital rendering of the pet leopard who has a number of critical scenes.

It’s interesting that studios have yet to master the rendering of lifelike animals, particularly in a big-budget movie like this from a major studio like Disney. As I recall, Ang Lee had much more success pulling this off in Life of Pi back in 2012.

These two minor criticisms aside, Jungle Cruise fills the bill for fun, summer, escapist entertainment.

Dwane Johnson is “Rock” solid in yet another role. I was trying to think of a role that he hasn’t been good in. He seems to be one of those charmed actors who audiences love, no matter what. Good to be Dwane.

The same can be said of Emily Blunt who will rule the 2021 summer box office with two hits, Jungle Cruise and Quiet Place: Part II.

She is no stranger to Disney Studios, having starred in the Mary Poppins Returns (2018). And she’s had a string of standout performances dating back to The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Good to be Emily.

Traditionally, Disney movies have been quality films with high production value. That’s why many of them have gone on to become timeless classics. I think it’s safe to add Jungle Cruise to that list.


Jungle Cruise is in theaters and on Disney+ with Premiere Access July 30.

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