Jungle Cruise Review: So Close, No Matter How Far

It’s an utterly weird, disorienting thing to see the Disney castle logo appear onscreen and hear a Metallica song in the background as Jungle Cruise begins. Especially when the first scene of the film is set in the 16th century. Who decides to put conquistadores in a film, and decide that “Nothing Else Matters” is the perfect song for them? Further proof that everyone works for Disney eventually. Nine Inch Nails’ longform “Broken” video remains such a genuinely disturbing faux-snuff movie that Vimeo actually re-banned it five years ago, yet Trent Reznor now scores Pixar movies. Go figure.

But it gets weirder. The conquistadores aren’t just a riff on Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God. The main one is literally named Aguirre, so there’s no chance of any doubt. The original Aguirre, starring the famously deranged Klaus Kinski, set a mad conquistador on a doomed voyage into South America that in many ways set the template for Italian cannibal movies. Disney’s Jungle Cruise uses a slightly more PG version of this exact story as a jumping-off point. With added Metallica.

Fast forward to 1916. Brilliant British scientist Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) can’t get any traction in England because, you know, sexism. So in her quest to find a rare Amazonian flower thought to cure all diseases, she and her brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) head down to the Amazon with a stolen artifact to try to find the thing themselves. To do so, they hire con-man Frank (Dwayne Johnson), who’s been giving mini versions of, basically, Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise ride to tourists. Using a real boat, several primitive “animatronics,” and the usual awful puns.

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Naturally, there are villains. Given the Herzog references so far, it’s not really surprising that one of them is an eccentric German control freak. That’s Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim, who’s in search of the flower for himself…and the long-dead conquistadores.

Dwayne Johnson got his first Hollywood break from The Mummy franchise, so it feels like full-circle to have him as the Brendan Fraser-ish character in a similar adventure. Lily’s early scenes feel like carbon copies of Rachel Weisz’s Evey, and McGregor basically fits the John Hannah role as the cowardly brother. The usual post-Indiana Jones temple traps feature prominently, and as the trailers suggest, conquistadores of the Amazon behave a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean.

With a runtime of just over two hours, however, Jungle Cruise feels overlong. Pacing in the first half drags, and there’s an entire subplot involving an early motion picture camera that never pays off. But once the movie commits to being weird, it really commits. Unlike Snake Eyes, which hinted at a weirder world only to pull back, Jungle Cruise goes full fantasy. Even Masters of the Universe fans may find some of the more absurd characters familiar.

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Action sequences, unfortunately, are less frequent or exciting than one might imagine, especially from director Jaume Collet-Serra. This man made his name with Liam Neeson action films, but he seems more ill at ease with CG. At least they are all visually coherent. Albeit no match for the older movies being ripped off referenced.

Speaking of which, because all involved name-drop The African Queen and Romancing the Stone as influences…the romance ain’t much. Dwayne Johnson may have the line-delivery edge over many previous wrestlers turned actors. But when it comes to generating legitimate sparks, he only conjures memories of Hulk Hogan trying to romance Joan Severance in No Holds Barred. Many super-muscular performers could use some lessons from Channing Tatum in that department. Ironically, Johnson works better with Whitehall than Blunt. As seen in his collaborations with Kevin Hart, playing off of a whiny, wimpy guy is entirely his wheelhouse.

And for what it’s worth, this does include a major gay character, not just a minor extra with a background kiss or dance. Although the scene in which they confess same will almost certainly get the chop in certain countries.

RELATED: Dwayne Johnson Shares Why Jaume Collet-Serra Was Right for Black Adam

All of these nitpicks may sound like harsher criticism than they actually ought to. Jungle Cruise so blatantly borrows from other movies that, yes, it suffers by not equaling any of them. But as its own thing, for current audiences who may not even get the old references, it’s a fine, fun romp that’s unafraid to embrace its own goofiness. There’s a scene involving Plemons and some CG bees that’s the best of its kind since Nicolas Cage got locked in a wicker man. And the Jaguar that behaves like a big ol’ kitty is sure to move more than a few plushes at the Disney Store.

Does anybody truly think that a better movie could derive directly from the theme park ride? Congo lifted several tricks from it back in 1995, and remains a significantly more painful watch. And if this leads any kids of today to discover Aguirre, The Wrath of God later in life, that’s a plus.

Like the theme park ride itself, Jungle Cruise is a meandering trip with fun things to look at. But once it’s done, you may want to rush over to Indiana Jones for a bigger thrill.

Grade: 3/5

Jungle Cruise opens July 30 in theaters and on Disney Plus Premier Access.