A quirky-for-her-age academic and her well-heeled, party-loving brother team up with a sardonic salt of the earth guy to use an ancient map to find something of life beyond death. That’s the basic plot of Stephen Sommers’s 1999 The Mummy, and it’s the basic plot of Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2021 Jungle Cruise, too. The Mummy was one of the last great adventure films before superheroes took over the genre, and Jungle Cruise is desperate to recapture that spark. Shockingly it’s pretty effective at that.
It doesn’t always work. Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt don’t have the same kind of chemistry as Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, and the CGI is often shaky and cartoonish in an unpleasant way. But adventure films are meant to be escapism fun and Jungle Cruise nails that part perfectly. Set in 1916, Blunt plays Lily Houghton, an explorer and researcher following in her father’s footsteps and hunting for a magic flower in the Amazon that could transform medicine (and show up the thoroughly sexist explorer society). Jack Whitehall is her brother, MacGregor, who would really rather be enjoying a cool gin and tonic in the shade than traveling to the Amazon, but will do it for his sister. Dwayne Johnson is Frank Wolff, their rugged guide who narrates the journeys on his boat with the same pun-laden jibes as a cast member of Disney’s Jungle Cruise theme park ride. They travel down the Amazon facing all the things you’d expect them to face: dangerous animals, piranhas, ghosts, German submarines, and even a mysterious tribe (more on that in a bit).
With the exception of some goofy twists I absolutely do not want to spoil, it’s a very by-the-numbers adventure film in the vein of The Mummy, Indiana Jones, and King Solomon’s Mine. There are even whiffs of other movies like African Queen and yes, really, Aguirre, Wrath of God. They fight monsters made of honeycomb and mud and try to avoid a delightfully bizarre German noble played by reliable bad guy Jessie Plemons, and the whole time it feels like you’re watching something manufactured in a lab to capture that spark The Mummy had, except everyone working on it in the lab was also doing a few healthy lines of cocaine while they wrote.
This movie is hyperkinetic, moving gleefully from action set piece to action set piece and going all-in on each one. The introduction of Blunt’s character involves a furious fight in a library and her first meeting with Johnson’s guide has a jungle cat and an explosion. Their characters are non plussed by the danger they regularly leap into, but just when you might think they’re getting a little too superheroic, Blunt will careen into some sacks of grain with an “oomph” or Johnson will absolutely miss the landing when swinging through the trees by rope. Even when the less than stellar CGI can be distracting, Johnson and Blunt are there to get things back on track with all their considerable charm.
And their chemistry, while maybe not as blistering as some other romantic leads, has a comfortable worn-in element to it. Like Humphry Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen, they’re playing older characters who are looking for a friend as much as a romantic partner. They trade barbs as often as they trade looks while floating lazily down the river between action set pieces. Jack Whitehall’s MacGregor knows when to steer clear to let the romantic embers burn, and when to pop in to get the plot back on track or provide a little levity. Though he does get his own heart-to-heart with Frank Wolff, where he confesses that he loves traveling with his sister and avoiding home because he’s gay and never plans to marry.
Yes, we finally got a gay character saying they are gay in a live-action Disney movie. No gay after the fact, no gay in the background, no gay and dead. MacGregor is the kind of character that is often coded as queer, and in Jungle Cruise they allow him to just come right out and say it — even if I personally, if traipsing through the jungle in 1916 Brazil, wouldn’t just go around outing myself to people I’d just met. It’s a moment that feels sort of like Disney checking something off a checklist, particularly as MacGregor’s sexuality has absolutely no bearing on the plot. After decades of Disney keeping characters in the closet, or keeping their sexuality purely subtextual, it’s nice to have a character just come out and make it explicit. Hopefully, the next queer character won’t have to be so earnest in their emerging from the closet and their sexuality can be revealed in a more natural way.
Yet while the film is eager to give us a gay character and a “modern” heroine who drives the plot (and the boat, and more than one action scene) there’s one area where Jungle Cruise feels painfully outdated. That’s in how it treats its environment and the indigenous people that inhabit it. The theme park ride the film is loosely based on was known for being terrifically racist, and Disney revamped it ahead of the film. One of the most well-known, and also racist, elements of the ride is a character called Trader Sam who holds shrunken heads aloft. In the movie, Trader Sam is played by Mexican actress Veronica Falcón and she banks on people’s preconceived notions of her and her tribe to get what she actually wants. It’s a hearty attempt to reimagine a less racist version of the character, but it doesn’t always sit right.
The locale and its people are still treated as “exotic” and “unknown.” They’re less people, more plot points to be navigated. Some of the other colonialist elements that are part and parcel for an adventure film like Jungle Cruise are addressed head-on. There are a lot of characters looking to mine the Amazon for immortality and the film ends up firmly condemning that behavior. As with Whitehall’s character, there’s this sense that the filmmakers want to do the right thing with respect to the racist elements native to the “lost world” genre of adventure stories. But instead of earning a gold star the best we can reward them is a yellow one with “you tried” scribbled on it.
That trying is what makes the film work. There’s a real earnestness to the whole movie that surpasses some of its very manufactured by Disney elements. It can be dopy and it can be misguided, but Jungle Cruise is also just a lot of fun. Like The Mummy before it, it’s not without its flaws — but it knows how to have a good time.
Jungle Cruise is in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access starting July 30.