Jungle Cruise may be based on the Disney theme park rides, but the real parallels are with The African Queen, the Bogart and Hepburn classic from 1951. Both films are set on the fringes of the First World War, Queen in German East Africa and Cruise in the Amazon rainforest, and both share a “will they, won’t they?” dynamic that is shaped by their dangerous journey.
Frank (Dwayne Johnson) is much like Bogart’s Charlie Allnut, only 9 inches taller and 130lbs heavier. He lives in a ramshackle boat along the Amazon River, where he operates tourist cruises replete with dad jokes and makeshift attractions. Joining Frank is Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), who combines the class of Katherine Hepburn’s Rose Sayer with an ability to kick lots of ass. Lily recruits Frank as her skipper in the hunt for the Tree of Life, which is said to have immense healing properties that could revolutionise modern medicine. Assisting them is Lily’s brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), a lily-livered dandy whose effete self-indulgences provide some of the film’s bigger laughs. Together, this unlikely crew are followed down the tributaries by Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a Prussian aristocrat who believes that the Tree of Life will win the war for Germany.
This story establishes itself well with old-fashioned charm and elaborate period detail, suggesting that Jungle Cruise will be a rip-roaring adventure yarn. However, this quaint energy is bogged down by what can only be described as fantastical nonsense – something about a sacred arrowhead, magical petals and a band of immortal conquistadors. It’s explained to us in a great hunk of expositional offal that’s just an excuse for an orgy of CGI, battering us over the head with loud noises, cursed tree branches and Medusa-like snakes – all of it utterly intangible.
This dive happens about two thirds into the baggy running time, undoing the modest progress it made with its characters and comedy. However, there is no point in Jungle Cruise where the leads achieve genuine chemistry, certainly not when compared to Bogie and Hepburn, whose face lights up when she falls for the old seadog, who can’t believe his luck. The African Queen is not a great movie, but its characters feel like real people with real feelings, not wisecracking cutouts.
There is more character development to be found in MacGregor, who comes out as gay in a man-to-man chat with Frank. As most will know, MacGregor is the first openly gay character in Disney’s history, yet his ‘confession’ does not feel like corporate posturing. Rather, it adds a sensitive edge to the gay ‘sissy’ stock character, a Hays Code-era trope that MacGregor very much aligns with. In doing this, Disney manages to indulge playful stereotypes while empathising with MacGregor’s pain. In other words, Disney has their cake and eats it, and I think that’s fine.
Naturally, the bulk of the screen time is given to its star, Dwayne Johnson, but they don’t do much with him apart from some forgettable action sequences and a slew of groan-worthy dad jokes. Sure, the groans are intentional, that’s the whole point. But wouldn’t it be better to actually laugh at something with a bit of wit? It is a decidedly mediocre turn from an actor who has become a family entertainer. Where is his Terminator? Where is his Predator? The money must be great, but Johnson’s too safe, too vanilla. Why doesn’t he try a genre film? Crime, thriller, horror – anything but this franchised fodder.