As far as “summer blockbusters” go, Jaume Collet-Serra’s Jungle Cruise is, in some ways, close to perfect. That it achieves such heights is in large part because it stands on the shoulders of giants. Based on the (now-revamped) Disney ride and starring none other than Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Emily Blunt, the film is seemingly inspired in equal parts by the likes of the Indiana Jones films, The African Queen, The Mummy, and Pirates of the Caribbean. While it never stretches to reach much higher, the familiar, glee-inducing view from atop these predecessors is at least easy to appreciate.
The story’s MacGuffin is the mysterious “Tears of the Moon,” the petals of an Amazonian tree that can supposedly heal any illness. Fulfilling the Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser roles (or should that be Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn? Harrison Ford and Karen Allen?) are Lily Houghton (Blunt), a doctor whose professional know-how and penchant for wearing pants put her at odds with the patriarchal systems of her World War I era, and Frank Wolff (Johnson), a riverboat captain who loves cracking dad jokes and pulling small cons on the people around him. Also along for the ride is Lily’s brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), who prefers a life of leisure and finds the prospect of exploring the Amazon horrifying. Of course, they aren’t the only people seeking this particular holy grail—Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a German aristocrat, seeks the petals as a means toward (what else?) world domination, and has recruited a group of undead conquistadors, led by Aguirre (Édgar Ramirez), to help him.
Though Lily and Frank start off at odds—in no small part because Frank tries at first to treat her as just his latest mark—the friction between them soon begins to throw off sparks. Or at least, a few sputters. Blunt and Johnson have an endearing rapport, but—perhaps because this is a Disney film—they never quite achieve the heat that Weisz and Fraser did, remaining instead in besties territory that pivots to passion that’s mostly told rather than shown. (Strangely, Johnson, despite being the dictionary definition of a hunk, has largely been cast as a chaste himbo, with his characters in movies like the Jumanji franchise playing off of his capacity for clueless charm rather than sex appeal.) Still, given that the primary aim of these tentpole movies is rarely romance, that doesn’t put much of a damper on the fun, especially as the other, more quirky characters jostle for their share of screen time.
Like many movies with multiple villains, Jungle Cruise struggles somewhat to make space for all of its baddies. The conquistador subplot, though it leads to a truly unforeseeable twist (and may summon pleasant reminders of Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog), seems to exist solely to provide the movie with a set of supernatural foes, the type who can conjure the magical powers of computer-driven effects, and though their respective traits—zombie Aguirre is made out of snakes, while one of his lieutenants is composed of honeybees—are imaginative, in a Davy Jones, face-full-of-tentacles kind of way (though the CGI doesn’t hold up quite as well), Plemons requires no such trickery to steal the show. Joachim, who seems like he could have easily come out of Christoph Waltz’s repertoire of thickly accented, slightly unhinged, mustache-twirling krauts, is a delight. So is Paul Giamatti, playing an Italian proprietor with a gold tooth and a talking parrot, though he’s relegated even further to the movie’s margins.
Slightly more complicated is the film’s attempt at reckoning with the colonialism inherent in its premise, something reflected in recent changes made to the actual ride to remove “negative depictions” of indigenous peoples. What is confounding is that the film only makes it halfway. There are a couple of jokes about the “cannibals” the white tourists fear being native people hired to put on an act, but in the very same scene in which it’s revealed that Lily and MacGregor are falling for racist stereotypes, the script turns to jokes about how the native people have only the most rudimentary grasp of the English language. But this isn’t the kind of cake that the movie can have and eat, too.
The longer one thinks about Jungle Cruise, the less it really holds up, but moment to moment, there’s always something exciting happening, and Collet-Serra, whose previous movies include the Liam Neeson vehicles Non-Stop and The Commuter, has a knack for compelling, clearly telegraphed action. The film also benefits from the fact that it obviously isn’t taking itself too seriously—Plemons has an entire scene in which he talks to a group of bees, who communicate in turn by dancing in the air—refusing every temptation to veer towards grittiness and instead going full-steam ahead toward brightly colored goofiness. In other words, while it might not return with previously unseen treasures, what it does rummage up pairs perfectly with a large bucket of popcorn and a slushy drink.