The adventure movie, once an immensely popular genre in blockbuster filmmaking, feels like a lost art nowadays. Those who love a good swashbuckling tale were spoiled in the late '90s and early '00s, when The Mask of Zorro, The Mummy, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl were all released in theaters within a five-year span. All three films came on the heels of the Indiana Jones craze of the 1980s. Superheroes, comic books, and IP reboots have since become the hot ticket in Hollywood, and tentpole adventure films have largely fallen by the wayside. That changes with the release of Jungle Cruise, an endlessly fun and exciting romp through the Amazon that recaptures the magic of its adventure predecessors.
Like Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise is based on one of Disney's most iconic theme park attractions. The classic ride sends guests on a steamboat tour downriver, as a sarcastic guide jokes and quips their way around every turn. The live-action adaptation obviously brings a lot more action, but it kicks off with the essence of what made the ride so beloved in the first place. Skipper Frank, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, is introduced as the captain of a jungle cruise on the Amazon River, delivering jokes about toucans and the "backside of water" (both well-known bits from the ride). Johnson is effortlessly funny and charming as the dad-joke-delivering skipper, in what will probably be remembered as one of his better roles to date.
Johnson's wit and charm are matched by the force known as Emily Blunt, who is as determined and likable as ever in her role as Dr. Lily Houghton. She's on a quest to track down the legendary Tears of the Moon, petals from a tree that can heal any ailment or illness. Blunt immediately stands toe to toe with Johnson in their first scene together and they prove to be an absolutely perfect pair. On-screen chemistry with female co-stars has sometimes been an issue for Johnson (see: Hobbs & Shaw), but he and Blunt are a formidable and believable duo from the jump.
That chemistry is key to making this grand adventure function properly. It's reminiscent of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz in The Mummy, in that you fully believe everything they go through together, including their frustrations with one another, which makes the bond they eventually form much more emotionally satisfying.
As the duo — along with a very game Jack Whitehall as Lily's brother, MacGregor — heads out down the river, a dangerous world unfolds around them. We learn of a curse that has kept a group of conquistadors imprisoned within the jungle for centuries, each of them morphing with parts of the jungle to create some wildly supernatural villains. There is a German prince, played by Jesse Plemons, who wants to steal the Tears of the Moon for his own immortal gains. There's even Paul Giamatti playing a gold-toothed riverboat tycoon, trying his damnedest to take every penny Frank has left.
Frank and Lily are set up to fail, with everything in the jungle seemingly working against them, but that's a big reason why Jungle Cruise works so well. Nothing is guaranteed, and they have to consistently find more creative ways to escape the situations they're thrown into. That results in a film that steadily grows bigger as it goes along, with each set piece outdoing its predecessor in fantastic fashion.
Like the river itself, Jungle Cruise is constantly moving and evolving. There's never really a time to slow down too much, as something else is always lurking around the next corner. When there are scenes that count on heavy exposition or character building, they remain as entertaining as the big action sequences because of the chemistry between Johnson and Blunt, as well as the unpredictable nature of the setting. Like the great adventure movies that have come before, Jungle Cruise is never boring.
Setting the tone for the grandiose sets and rope-swinging stunts of Jungle Cruise is James Newton Howard's delightful score. The horn-filled crescendos are magnificent from start to finish, adding just enough to bring back memories of adventures past without ever being too overpowering. It's a fine line to walk, but Newton toes the line perfectly.
There's a bit more CGI throughout Jungle Cruise than expected, and it's a mixed bag at times. Edgar Ramirez's villain is creepy for the most part, though the animals and supernatural occurrences do sometimes feel entirely too sleek or modern for the story. It's not overly distracting by any means, it's just not exactly ideal.
Jungle Cruise is the adventure we've been waiting for, the kind of grand tale that reminds us of the movies that made many of us love movies in the first place. Hopefully it's the start of a new trend, bringing the long-lost art of swashbuckling tentpoles back to prominence once again.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Jungle Cruise arrives in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access July 30th.