Disney’s ‘Jungle Cruise’ Turns a Popular Theme Park Ride Into an Old-Fashioned Adventure

Disney’s “Jungle Cruise” features a story you could rip out of some old dime novel or tourist brochure. It marks off a checklist of essential tropical threats like snakes, tigers and cursed Conquistadors. As you would expect, the movie boasts the typically bottomless Disney budget, where no expense is spared, on the special effects and set design. Yet at the same time there’s an old-fashioned appeal to “Jungle Cruise.” It harkens back to old Hollywood, if not classic Disney, in the enjoyable simplicity of the premise. Never does this movie behave as if it knows its audience has grown up fed on videogames and cynical gunplay. Much of it is also a welcome update on this genre, bringing representation via presenting story angles that would have not been possible 80 years ago.

The story is set in 1916. World War I is raging and London scientist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) breaks into the headquarters of a chauvinist scientific society. She steals a recently discovered arrowhead that could hold the key to finding the Lagrimas de la Luna (Tears of the Moon), a source of power lost centuries ago during a conquistador expedition led by the doomed warlord Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez). To find the Tears, Lily ventures into Brazil with overprotective, snobby brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall). They will need a skipper to guide them down the Amazon to see where the arrowhead leads. Their best, self-promoting choice is Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who knows the river like the back of his hand, and owes local thugs a lot of money. But also seeking the arrowhead is Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who hopes to use the Tears of the Moon to help Germany win the war. Armed with a submarine and stooges, blasting Wagner, Joachim begins to chase the small expedition. 

“Jungle Cruise” follows “Pirates of the Caribbean” as a case of Disney figuring it could spin a franchise out of one of its famous theme park rides. The early scenes where Frank starts cruising his boat down the Amazon with Lily and MacGregor onboard has the feel of a ride, down to the artificiality of the jungle wildlife. It soon gives way to an energetic swashbuckler in the tradition of “The Phantom” or the smaller cousins of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Director Jaume Collet-Serra, usually a filmmaker of dark, visceral suspense like “The Shallows” or “Orphan,” has taken notes from guilty pleasures like “The Mummy,” aware that for this kind of movie you can’t be pretentious. Even the music score by James Newton Howard utilizes the melody of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” Serra also mixes escapist, khaki-dressed clichés while defying old jungle adventure stereotypes. Dwayne Johnson isn’t the brown little helper of the keen European minds. Instead, he’s the sharper guide helping their clueless selves. When the expedition gets captured by “cannibals,” the scene turns into a funny riff on indigenous representation, with Veronica Falcón playing a tribal leader tired of “this ooga ooga nonsense.” There is a well-written moment of genuine maturity where MacGregor explains to Frank that he’s gay, and when he came out Lily fully backed him against prejudiced relatives. This is why he’s willing to endure jungle life while missing his golf clubs and swanky restaurants. When we see Aguirre and his men rampage through indigenous communities in flashbacks, it might be disturbing for younger viewers, but in a positive way. Now these explorers are depicted as violent colonists, which indeed they were.

Unless leaping snakes and evil German madmen are not your cup of tea, “Jungle Cruise” then speeds through its plot with few dull moments. Disney has its set formulas, and by now every new movie poses the question of how well they work this time around. There’s the essential animal companion, in this case a lovable leopard named Proxima, who munches on MacGregor’s fancy luggage or pukes after lapping spilled wine. Lily is endlessly annoyed by Frank’s bravado and terrible jokes (“I had a girlfriend who was cross-eyed. She might have been seeing someone else on the side”). There can be no doubt she’s also gradually falling in love with him. This is a khaki-dressed adventure after all. As the plot hurtles on we learn about 400-year-old curses and magic pedals. Visually the imagination of “Jungle Cruise” has the suspense and eerie charm of movies like “The Mummy” when it comes to the villains. Aguirre and his accursed conquistadors have been trapped as stone figures entwined in jungle roots and vines. Once revived to cause havoc, Aguirre’s body swarms with snakes while another conquistador is a dripping torso of honeycomb. 

A movie like “Jungle Cruise” has to depend a lot on its action scenes and Serra delivers some good ones. They never rise to the scale of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” but that also adds to the movie’s simple, escapist fun. It’s suspenseful enough to have Frank’s boat get tossed around a raging waterfall or Lily escape kidnappers at a seedy Brazilian port. As you may have already guessed, Dwayne Johnson is required to swing, leap and endure a spear through his torso. He can crash through levels of foliage and come back fighting. But no one does it like him, with that wholesome attitude. Johnson did always seem too nice for the “Fast & Furious” crew. In a way this is a return to his earliest film roots, since Johnson’s first big movie was “The Scorpion King” way back in 2002. Because his comedic timing is still flawless, Johnson also works well with Emily Blunt, who always looks dead serious in anything she does. Paul Giamatti also seems to be enjoying himself in a brief role as a snarky gangster with a gold tooth, who badgers Frank for his money and looks appropriate for a spot in the Bolsonaro government.

“Jungle Cruise” is not aiming to sweep the Academy Awards and its screenplay won’t be featured in any critical essays anytime soon. But anything involving underwater chambers where Emily Blunt has to kiss Dwayne Johnson for oxygen can be enjoyed for its sheer escapism. These days you have superhero movies walking and talking like existential texts on the dreariness of existence. It’s only fair that Disney still makes room to update some classic formulas, with a bit more wokeness but retaining a silly taste for colorful entertainment. It could have easily been a tired attempt at exploiting an old Disney ride, instead it’s a boat worth jumping on to get away from gloomy headlines and get back in touch with a less cynical form of action storytelling. We all know the average popcorn entertainment wants to put posteriors in seats and make a buck for the studio. “Jungle Cruise” aims for this goal with a lively spirit and smile-inducing charm. 

Jungle Cruise” releases July 30 on Disney+ Premier Access and in theaters nationwide.