REVIEW: Disney’s New ‘Jungle Cruise’ Film is One Wild Ride of Action, Comedy, and Adventure
Disney’s upcoming film release Jungle Cruise starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt is one jam-packed thrill-seeking ride of comedy and adventure. Jaume Collet-Serra directs the film, with Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, and Paul Giamatti joining the cast as well. This review dives into some details including the film’s attempt at representation, casting diversity, and effects; but no major plots or spoilers are revealed.
Think Pirates of the Caribbean meets Indiana Jones, throw in some really good comedy, acting, and chemistry amongst a stellar cast, and you’re going to get Disney’s latest upcoming film drop Jungle Cruise which is absolutely set to be this summer’s next big thing.
The story opens with the background on the legend of the Tears of the Moon. A single petal from a particular tree could cure any illness and break any curse. Numerous expeditions were led to find the tree including one legendary Spanish conquistador. The jungle fought back and protected the tears which were said to have resulted in his death, but other stories tell a different outcome with the guardians of the tree nursing him back to life. He was then said to have demanded the sacred arrowhead which held the secret to finding the Tears of the Moon. They denied his requests, and in turn, he violently attacked the same people that saved him. The jungle defended his advancements again and took hold of him and his men, cursed, unable to leave or die.
We fade into MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall) narrating this tale in 1916 London, England (two years into The Great War) describing the location of Lagrimas De Cristal as being the true source of the tree possessing unparalleled healing powers. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) which we later learn to be his sister is mimicking and whispering his words of the lecture which are written on his note cards. He’s sweating which leads you to believe based on the time period that he’s nervously giving her lecture as it would be “blasphemous” for them to receive the information from a woman. The lecture continues as he requests access to the archives to retrieve the ancient arrowhead to unlock the Tears of the Moon to help modern medicine but also the ailments of the soldiers at war.
He fumbles and reads out loud, “pause for dramatic effect” as his sister Lily literally throws her eyes up in 1900’s sisterly frustration that MacGregor “had one job” and doesn’t seem to be able to handle it. The archive committee gives him a flat-out no and states access is for legitimate scholars. He eyes the next note card which indicates to read the next few cards “slowly” which he then turns to find, that the ink has run, making the remaining speech illegible. The fun is just starting. The speech is a stalling game to distract the committee while Lily jumps into “Plan B” to steal the arrowhead right under their noses from an archived chest.
Lily follows the homemade ink map she’s doodled on her arm to navigate the archives building and runs into the infamous Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) a deranged and ambitious German aristocrat who finances and leads a military expedition to claim the Tree of Life greedily for himself. He points out that she is not “where she should be,” and that the secretaries’ gallery is in the opposite direction; a 1900’s version of a modern-day ‘Karen.’ Meanwhile, MacGregor is still hilariously improvising his lecture on the ailments that the Tree of Life will cure, including “yellow fever, hay fever, fever fevers, all fevers.”
We are then introduced to Lily’s lock picking expertise which comes in handy throughout the film as she navigates her way to the arrowhead possibly incapacitating a researcher or two. MacGregor’s jig is up as the committee notes he was allowed access to the committee based on his father’s past work but his presentation is noted as very similar to a proposal submitted to him by a “female,” Dr. Lily Houghton. They then in turn offer to help him find his way out.
Lily finally reaches the crate that houses the arrowhead and with success pulls it out but not before being confronted again by Prince Joachim when he notices the crate is empty and demands them to grab Lily. Lily arms herself with a spear and a moving staircase to quickly fight her way out of the office and ends up dangling outside the window overlooking the city street. She’s having to choose her life or the arrowhead that Prince Joachim is demanding. She flicks the box as her brother MacGregor has conveniently brought a double-decker bus to a standstill which she falls into safely. Prince Joachim to his forever internalized frustration and anger opens the box to reveal a stuffed toucan with no sign of the arrowhead. Before he can spin around in anger at the archives office snapping necks, Lily now donning her liberating pants with the arrowhead around her neck along with MacGregor, are already off on their journey for the Tree of Life.
The duo is on a mission halfway around the globe where they are seeking to commission the sunburned cockatoo donning entrepreneur and hustler, Nilo Nemolato (Paul Giamatti), to navigate them through the Amazon river to Lagrimas De Cristal in hopes of retrieving the Tears of the Moon. We are introduced to Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson) a witty jungle cruising captain who is comfortable in his tourist gigs but who finds himself in debt to Nilo for some cash. Nilo confiscates his boat motor and locks the key in his office safe and demands payment.
Lily mistakes Frank for Nilo and they begin to bargain on the journey as he calls her “Pants,’ as she shows off her incredibly intricate map. After he fails at convincing her to his proposal for a less dangerous journey, site seeing pygmy elephants, she opens the safe he was breaking into and wants to finalize the price over dinner at the local bar. In marches MacGregor with excitement as he produces the real Nilo who has agreed to a steep $50,000 journey voyage fee.
Words exchange as Lily is disgusted that she was almost fooled by Frank and in jumps a ferocious leopard that Frank battles with his bare hands. Nilo cowardly weasels his way up the stairs out of harm’s way. The crowd in the bar cheers, “He did it,” as Frank breaks into his wide smile, with arms spread in the air, loving the adoration. When Frank is done battling for his life and saving the lives of everyone else, the leopard is thrown out the window and the clear answer on who should be leading the expedition comes over Lily. Frank agrees to the fee and an early morning start as Lily corrects him they will be leaving that evening with no time to waste.
Frank is below deck as he has unlocked his motor and we learn that he is really the owner of the leopard, Proxima, as she tries to play fetch rolling her ball to him. Fifty Louis Vuitton-esque trunks and bags later, MacGregor is heading to the boat as Frank informs him that his tennis shirts aren’t welcome but he will gladly make room for the chest full of alcohol. One by one his expensive luggage is thrown into the river full of bathing suits and toiletries as MacGregor loses his right ‘fashionable’ mind.
Distracted, they cannot hear the screams as Lily on her arrival has been thrown into a cage of endangered birds about to set sail to France to be stuffed. She just couldn’t stifle her humanitarian side as she is now shoved into the cage of the squawking birds she tried to rescue a moment ago. Frank starts the boat as some of Nilo’s thugs are en route to get the motor back and hands the wheel to MacGregor as he jumps to land to save Lily who in all of her feminist glory has unpicked the lock and is kicking butt one bad guy at a time. She also finds time to free some monkeys from cages because she can’t help herself. Lily runs in the opposite direction and zip lines over the river to the boat dock and the journey begins as they pick her up on a dock as Frank learns she can’t even swim.
As things calm down, Prince Joachim arrives in his submarine donning machine gun artillery. Frank states to Lily that the fee just went up as they begin to dodge the Prince’s menacing trigger happy presence. With a damaged engine from the gunfire, Frank navigates them to Nilo’s dock of all places, as he prances out stepping in the name of rage. Lily starts the motor with just a kick after she was told by Frank that no one touches his motor when he fails to get it up and running. The engine roars and they avoid the submarine’s torpedo and in all of the chaos, Nilo is left screaming on a dock with a fireball explosion with all of his assets going up in flame outside of his single gold-capped front tooth.
We next see Frank swooning over his boat repairing the damage as MacGregor comes out on the deck in his best pink blazer with a tan vest, tie, and white knickers, not sweating one bead. Lily and Frank are taking in the beauty of the Amazon and the wildlife as Frank brings more jokes, this time regarding his cross-eyed ex-girlfriend “who was seeing people on the side.”
One or two moving pictures later, Lily aka “Pants” is in all her glory looking at all of the species of plants as she is told by Frank that they can’t go in the direction that she insists is shorter, as it’s filled with deadly rapids. She advises him with an endearing “Skippy” that she hired him to battle rapids so get to stepping. Prince Joachim, still aboard his submarine, prepares his men to set course for the Tree of Life. His henchman (aka his crew) voice their fear for the curse of Aguirre as the camera reveals a letter with his signature on the table.
Slightly starved and in denial that there are no five-star accommodations, Lily, and MacGregor in his finest burgundy dinner jacket, are forced to eat freshly caught piranha on board as they rest the engine for the night. As night falls, and the moon rises, Frank takes to his guitar and learns more about Lily and her desire to save the world as he calls her “the Darwin of Flowers,” as MacGregor retires to bed in his chartreuse striped pajamas slathering his cooling night creams on his face.
Frank explains he only needs one person to care about and that’s enough for him as Proxima comes jumping out licking the creams off MacGregor’s face as he screams in horror. Frank calls off Proxima as Lily now learns it was his cat all along just when we thought Frank had an inkling of a chance to swoon Lily’s heart.
Prince Joachim’s henchman are dropping like flies, as the Prince has made it to the Tree of Life where he makes a deal with the trapped Spanish conquistador via the serpents tangled in a web of tree roots. He detonates a bomb that unleashes water which begins to transform the men caught in trees. Frank, Lily, and MacGregor battle the rapids in a near-death experience over a torrential waterfall as they lick their wounds and Frank finds his leopard drunk off some wine that spilled during the flood damage. Proxima passes out and we later see Lily filming the giant cat gnawing at MacGregor’s designer white shoes.
All dry after another designer suit is trashed by the waterfall escapade, Frank and MacGregor pow-wow over why he’s following his sister across the world to the Amazon, MacGregor divulges that he was to marry but was made to admit that his interests were elsewhere in which they then toast with a drink. MacGregor explains how everyone began to ostracize him outside of Lily and that he would literally” follow her into a volcano,” for her commitment to being his rock. This is the first stab at Disney developing what appears to be an LGBTQIA+ main character with a backstory and a bit more explanation than past films. Did they dive completely into the representation pond? No; but it’s a good start. In regards to diversity, I would have loved to have seen some darker-skinned cast and extras. I can’t say that I saw one and the Atlantic slave trade was definitely active for almost 400 years and it is Brazil, so there should have been representation.
Lily’s been snooping around the boat and discovers that Frank has not been honest about what he knows about the expedition. MacGregor begins to have a Kumbaya moment as they are wading into a den of tribal people known for eating tourists for lunch. Nothing is what it seems as we see the trio begging for their lives from the tribal leader as Lily states she will absolutely unequivocally not be handing over the sacred arrowhead as demanded. One eyebrow up later and Lily is doing another Whodini number to get out of the ropes holding her hostage, grabbing a spear, and taking on the entire tribe. When no one reacts, the sham is again spoiled as the tribal leader admits that she didn’t sign up for this and calls Frank out. Frank’s lies are really running out of steam at this point for Lily.
The story unfolds into a back and forth between Frank and Lily as she desperately wants to continue the journey and Frank simply isn’t up for the job when it includes an actual opportunity that Lily could get hurt or possibly die. MacGregor mixing and mingling with the locals has been sprawled with red tattoo ink across his forehead that may take decades to come off. A great pairing to his all-white suit, perfect for storming the jungle. More chaos ensues as they are surprised by what the forest has in store, as they are left to battle on their quest or rather Lily’s plight for humanity. Everything is not what it seems with Frank but you’ll have to watch to get to the bottom of it.
Jungle Cruise is one fun Disney ride of fantasy, action, and suspense that indeed serves up tons of nostalgia for the ride that many adore at Disney’s theme park. The film also does little to offend as many films of the past have done when venturing into the whole tribal genre; its fantasy done slightly right without the expense of mischaracterizing a whole race or tribe of people. The writing showcases a good mix of nutty characters and no one is thrown under the bus based on ethnicity. But as stated they did leave out darker Brazilians and Africans in casting. Not to mention 1916 London should have had a healthy mix of Black casting. Not only were Black people in Britain but Black soldiers helped Britain in the First World War.
Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson have spectacular chemistry and their flirty banter is sprinkled in effortlessly making it believable and not forced. Emily’s character overall is a powerful one for young girls to cheer for with her ambition and mantra of never giving up no matter how many people advise you to turn back; and trust us they do nonstop, which is pretty historically accurate. The bad news is the CGI gets a bit wonky and at times didn’t seem to flow very well.
Overall Jungle Cruise does feel like one glorious long escapade at the Disney theme-park which it is based on; you definitely will feel quite a bit of escapism as you dive into this fantasy film. Disney’s Jungle Cruise releases in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier access on July 30, 2021.