Dir: Jaume Collet-Serra. Starring: Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Édgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti. 12A, 127 mins.
When Disneyland first opened its doors to guests in 1955, it really did seem as if Walt Disney could do magic. Alongside his designers, known colloquially as the Imagineers, he’d taken a dusty, sun-baked orange grove in Anaheim, California and conjured within it the jungles of Africa, Asia, and South America. It was the basis for a safari-themed boat ride called the Jungle Cruise. Now, over 60 years later, director Jaume Collet-Serra has found his own way to turn the barren into the bountiful.
His film takes a theme park ride consisting of slightly poky animatronics of hippos, lions, and crocodiles and spins a narratively ambitious, starry-eyed throwback to some of the greats of the adventure genre, including The African Queen, Romancing the Stone, and the Indiana Jones series. It even borrows its central dynamic from 1999’s The Mummy, as a brother-and-sister duo of academics enlist a rogueish adventurer in search of to help find a lost corner of civilisation. Dr Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), whose fierce intellect is matched only by the strength of her right hook, grew up in the thrall of her father’s bedtime stories – in particular, that of the legendary Tears of the Moon, a flower with the ability to cure any ailment.
In 1916, Lily barges into the Amazon determined to locate said flower, armed only with a conquistador’s map, a sacred arrowhead stolen (or, rather, borrowed) from a lost expedition, and a determination to wear trousers despite all of society’s protestations. It’s there, following a traditional case of mistaken identity, that she meets steamboat captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), whose casual demeanour and megawatt smile makes scamming the local tourists easy work.
Trailing reluctantly in her wake is her pampered, Eton-clone brother McGregor (Jack Whitehall) – arguably the first Disney character who’s actually gay in the text, not just in the subtext, even if he refers obliquely to his disinterest in heterosexual marriage. His actual interests, he says, lie entirely “elsewhere”. Not that the studio should pat itself on the back quite yet, since the character plays into and resists effeminate stereotypes in a way that somehow feels simultaneously progressive and regressive. The fact his punch is as strong as his sister’s doesn’t entirely undo the fact he’s chiefly there to flinch and gag at every uncultivated part of the jungle.
In truth, much of Jungle Cruise feels bound to this push-and-pull between old and new sensibilities. After all, it’s based on an attraction that recently had many of its animatronics removed and replaced under the banner of “cultural sensitivity”, which in real terms means detaching its storyline from the racist, colonial overtones of the original. The reason for its lasting popularity – its sense of kitsch and the barrage of dad jokes provided by the “skippers” operating the boats – has been preserved in Johnson’s performance. It’s yet another display of his natural showmanship. A scene where Frank attempts to dazzle tourists by showing them the “backside of water” will make sense to Disney fans and Disney fans only – but there’s simply no Jungle Cruise film without it.
The ride’s infamous Trader Sam, one of the recently vanished animatronics, has here been given a welcome makeover. Sam is no longer a man who hawks shrunken heads, but a woman and a local indigenous leader (played by Veronica Falcón) with a few tricks up her sleeve. But, elsewhere, the attempt to detach the adventure genre from its old, antiquated habits comes with mixed results. It’s refreshing to see a pack of conquistadors, led by Aguirre (Édgar Ramírez) and cursed to a monstrous kind of immortality, pitched as the film’s primary villains. But a third act attempt to replicate the ambitious internal mythology of Pirates of the Caribbean features an odd attempt to make colonisers seem sympathetic, and turns a straightforward plotline into a mess of conflicting motivations.
It’s an unnecessary distraction from the simple joy that is watching Blunt and Johnson revel in each other’s presence. There’s a biting, infectious chemistry here that wouldn’t feel out of place in any of the classic screwball comedy: he calls her “lady”, she calls him “Skippy”; they steal tender glances in between all the quipping, bickering, and slapstick action. James Newton Howard’s music swells with heady romanticism, in clear deference to John Williams’s work on the Indiana Jones films. Jesse Plemons, as a Germanic prince, and Paul Giamatti, as a gold-toothed Italian, appear to have waged a bet on who could deliver the most outrageous pantomime performance. It’s a tie – both are a total delight. While Jungle Cruise may not be quite as modern as it sets out to be, it certainly isn’t slacking when it comes to good, old-fashioned entertainment.