Remember what blockbusters were like before Marvel? When heroes flew biplanes instead of supersuits? When baddies shot revolvers instead of magic finger sparks? If you grew up with swashbucklers like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, Romancing The Stone or The Mummy you’ll find so much to love in Jungle Cruise – a rollicking summer holiday classic with an old soul and a messy modern edge.
Picking up the slack left by whatever happened to the Pirates Of The Caribbean franchise (*cough* Johnny Depp *cough*), Disney’s latest ride-to-film adaption follows almost the exact same formula as 2003’s Curse Of The Black Pearl – mixing up old-fashioned matinee charm with a whole lot of supernatural CG schlock.
If you haven’t been on the original ride at Disneyland you haven’t got much catching up to do. As old as the first park itself, Disney’s 1955 river outing is a slow colonial cruise that floats guests past a handful of quaint animatronic jungle scenes (squirting elephants, snapping crocodiles and racist stereotypes) while a real-life “skipper” narrates everything with an ad-libbed script of intentionally bad animal puns. Is that enough to hang a movie off? Of course not. But throw in a few mad German submarine captains, an army of zombie conquistadors made out of bees, and a bizarrely out of place Metallica track and you’ve got yourself a modern maximalist blockbuster wearing handsome old-timey threads.
Here the skipper is Dwayne Johnson – jaded steamboat captain Frank Wolff – who reluctantly agrees to drive plucky English scientist Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her posh brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) up the Amazon in 1917 to find a glowy flower MacGuffin that has something to do with ancient curses and eternal life. The plot gets thicker when Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemmons) joins the chase in a giant U-boat, and thicker still when magic moon water reanimates a vengeful gang of dead 16th Century Spanish zombies led by Édgar Ramírez’s “Aguirre” (always good to find a Werner Herzog in-joke buried in a Disney film…).
If the plot sounds messy, everything else in Jungle Cruise stays satisfyingly clean-cut – starting with the perfect pairing of Johnson and Blunt. Doing his best to squeeze into the mould of classic Hollywood heroes like Humphrey Bogart and Harrison Ford, Johnson finds a role that fits his star power perfectly (despite looking more like he’s got protein shake in his hipflask instead of whiskey). Better still, Blunt stands even taller – delivering twice the sass and punching just as many snakes/cannibals/zombies to give us a new hero that’s somewhere between Indiana Jones and Katherine Hepburn.
And then there’s Whitehall’s endearingly annoying fop (managing to handle one of Disney’s most high-profile gay characters with real sensitivity); Plemmons’ deranged German cartoon stiff; a pet CG jaguar who understands English; and a raft of big, exciting action scenes that play like grand theme park stunt shows. There’s so much packed into Jungle Cruise that it’s easy to get lost in – and a bizarre late twist threatens to capsize an already well overladen boat – but director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Run All Night, The Shallows) mostly keeps things grounded in such a fine old spirit of adventure that it’s impossible not to enjoy the ride.
Glowing with golden-age romance and buzzing with Marvel-age pizzazz, Jungle Cruise is everything summer blockbusters used to be and a whole lot they never were. Is this the start of a whole new Pirates-style franchise? Let’s hope so.
- Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
- Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall
- Release date: July 30 (in UK cinemas)