Teaming up box office leviathan Dwayne Johnson with the increasingly-likeable Emily Blunt and popular British comedian/actor Jack Whitehall in an action movie based on a Disney theme park ride sounds like a licence to print money – as well as potentially kickstarting a new long-running movie franchise. But we live in strange cinematic times where not only is it increasingly difficult to second-guess what titles are going to click with a broad audience, we also have to contend with the ongoing vagaries of the damage done to the industry by the ongoing effects of a worldwide pandemic. Moviegoers and pundits alike continue to hope that an irresistible slate of unmissable top drawer broad appeal movies will lure a timid audience back to the movie theatre and properly reinvigorate a box office that’s still somewhat sluggish and moribund. But the studios’ cautious ‘same date’ theatrical and digital release template continues to do the proper moviegoing experience no favours… and sadly, films like Jungle Cruise (available in cinemas as well as Disney+’s Premium Access service) aren’t really doing their bit either.
There’s really nothing much wrong with Jungle Cruise; it’s an entirely watchable, serviceable old-school adventure movie set in the Amazon, packed with slick stunts, glib dialogue, decent chemistry between the two leads, and a shedload of slightly distracting CGI. But, sadly, nothing we haven’t seen dozens of times before in the likes of the Indiana Jones series, the rebooted Jumanji (also starring Johnson, of course), The Mummy, Romancing the Stone and titles that really are too numerous to mention. There’s nothing wrong with creating a movie that invokes old favourites and in many ways, Jungle Cruise is largely a refreshingly competent return to the more simplistic days of action cinema (with one or two inevitable concessions to perceived contemporary audience requirements) but to really work this is a film that needed at least a dash of something new. A tiny sliver of original thinking to differentiate itself from the sea of good-natured action movies that have preceded it.
It’s 1916 and Dr Lily Houghton (Blunt) and her willowy brother Macgregor (Whitehall) determine to voyage up the treacherous Amazon to find the mythical Tears of the Moon, a tree the petals of which have the capacity to cure illness and heal injuries. They enlist the help of wise-cracking riverboat skipper Frank Wolff (Johnson) and set off on a… well, jungle cruise… that will pit them against ferocious cannibals, a determined German rival (played with extraordinary relish by Jesse Plemons), perilous rapids and, eventually, a group of petrified supernatural 16th-century conquistadors. It’s all good-natured, romping fun; full of fights, escapes, and assorted feats of derring-do but the whole film is suffused with a sense of déjà vu – we’ve really seen all this before too many times – and whilst it’s a ride we’re happy to go along with for the first hour or so, the spirits inevitably start to sink into the Amazon murk when we realise that this is really all there is and that there’s nothing new coming around the next bend in the river to distinguish the film from the likes of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, for example. Jungle Cruise is the classic example of a film that’s just going through its motions, content to offer up nothing more and nothing less than its title suggests as and, as they say, what it says on the tin.
Jungle Cruise is harmless fun, kept afloat by the watchability factor of its three leads and a relentless, lively pace that means it’s never boring and never a chore. But it’s also not even remotely exceptional and it’s likely that you’ll start to forget it even as you’re watching it and you’re most likely to be reaching for your Indiana Jones boxset the moment it’s over to remind yourself of the days when adventure stories like this had some real pizzazz and a proper sense of awe.
Jungle Cruise is in cinemas now and available on Premium Access via Disney+