They needn’t have bothered. Jungle Cruise, Disney’s latest live-action cinematic adaptation of a theme park ride, was already a classic Hollywood adventure before it became a pun-laden excursion down African and Asian rivers. That movie was 1951’s The African Queen, the key inspiration for Walt Disney and Harper Goff when designing the Disneyland Jungle Cruise ride. The ride, if you haven’t had the pleasure, is as follows: Guest board river steamers and float past jungle fauna. Initially, the animals were supposed to be real. But when someone informed Walt that animals sleep most of the time, they opted for audio-animatronic ones instead. But a safari sailing past mechanical hippos didn’t quite cut the mustard for guests, so Walt brought in Marc Davis to spruce things up. His suggestion: Humor. Rearrange the animatronics to make them look less convincing, let the guests in on the joke, and toss in a pun or six wherever possible.
It worked like gangbusters, and that’s the ride you get when you board the Jungle Cruise to this day. It’s a favorite among guests and the one I still enjoy most, no matter how many times I’ve ridden it. I can see why they thought making a movie out of it would be a good idea. Why they thought making this movie out of it is beyond me.
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Jungle Cruise is set on the Amazon circa 1916 but opens much earlier. Four hundred years earlier, with conquistador Don Lope de Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez) leading his men through the jungle searching for El Dorado—here, a massive tree of life called Tears of the Moon or something like that. Aguirre was a real person, a cruel and vile human, who most modern viewers probably know from Werner Herzog’s magnificent Aguirre, the Wrath of God, with an unhinged Klaus Kinski starring as the titular terror. In that movie, Aguirre promises to sleep with his daughter and create “the purest dynasty the world has ever seen.” In reality, Aguirre killed her so the natives wouldn’t. Here, she is sick, and Aguirre is trying to save her. I guess the first two didn’t test well at Disney.
An odd starting point, sure, but we’ll need backstory where this one is going. And don’t worry, a lengthy explanation is just one long hour and a half away. But first, we come to the present, 1916, and Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) has found a map that will take her to the tree. All she needs is a magical arrowhead and the backing from the British Explorers Society—which they don’t give because she is a woman and wears pants. So she steals the arrowhead and sets off to the Amazon with her prissy brother (Jack Whitehall) in tow. But not before a comic set-piece invoking the works of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and an obligatory reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark.
There’s a good deal of movie references and homages in Jungle Cruise. Some, like the Raiders line, are quips. Others, like 1999’s The Mummy, act as tour guides. But the script doesn’t know what to do with either beyond acknowledging their existence. The longest-running of them involves yet another baddie, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a nattily dressed German U-Boat officer sporting Herzog’s Bavarian accent. Curious. When Francis Ford Coppola saw Aguirre, the Wrath of God, he felt compelled to make Apocalypse Now. I guess when Collet-Serra and his team of writers saw Aguirre, they felt compelled to make this. Five writers are credited with the Jungle Cruise script and story. I imagine there are a dozen more that paid to keep their names secret.
Back to the story: Armed with the magical arrowhead and plenty of pants, Lily and MacGregor head to South America with Joachim and his U-boat hot on their heels. There they find Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a riverboat skipper who swindles tourists by showing them the backside of water and bombarding them with the jokes from the attraction. One of the joys of riding the Jungle Cruise at the parks is that the skippers treat their spiel as if it every time is the first time. Here, Johnson delivers his with all the vim and vigor of an actor on their twelfth take when the third would have sufficed.
Things happen. Frank fights a jaguar, Paul Giamatti in a bad mustache with a bird on his shoulder shows up as a businessman buying up waterfront property, Frank and Lily spar verbally—he calls her “Pants,” she calls him “Skippy,” ho, ho—and Joachim resurrects Aguirre and his men to help him find the tree. But there’s a catch: So nasty were these conquistadors that the natives put a curse on their souls. Now, Aguirre’s innards have been turned into poisonous snakes. Cut him, and a snake pops out and strikes. Handy for a vicious warlord. His second is now a human honeycomb with command over beers. As handy? His third becomes… I don’t remember. Whatever it was, it wasn’t as interesting as the walking beehive.
What in holy hell is going on here? How did a movie about an alcoholic skipper leading an uptight missionary down the African Congo become a theme park ride about the backside of water become this? Blunt, bless her heart, tries to make something out of it but can only do so much. Johnson, who has done so much more with so much less, looks gassed. Worse, he’s tasked with delivering vast dumps of exposition and doesn’t sound like he believes a word of it. Toss in plenty of poor CGI—and even worse process shots—and I didn’t either. The queue line for the Jungle Cruise in Disneyland is more exciting.
Jungle Cruise (2021)
Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra
Screenplay by Michael Green, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Screen story by John Norville, Josh Goldstein, Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Produced by John Davis, Beau Flynn, John Fox, Dany Garcia, Hiram Garcia, Dwayne Johnson
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Edgar Ramírez, Veronica Falcón, Dani Rovira, Quim Gutiérrez, Dan Dargan Carter
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 127 minutes, Opens July 30, 2021, in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.