Rock The Boat: Dwayne Johnson & Emily Blunt Keep ‘Jungle Cruise’ Afloat
There’s a reason why Disneyland and its affiliated properties have remained so popular (and profitable) through the years. Its rides are not designed to surprise or astound you; if that were the case, they wouldn’t get so much repeat business after the rides had been experienced once. Instead, they are designed to evoke feelings of comfort and nostalgia to go along with the fun. It’s why so many of the rides are based upon well-known stories. It’s why the Haunted Mansion is more whimsical than scary, why Pirates of the Caribbean is a comical caricature of buccaneer behavior.
Jungle Cruise has been a Disneyland attraction since the theme park’s opening day in 1955, and it’s certainly not the park’s most exciting ride. It’s one of those rides you take when you don’t want to wait in a long, long line for the more popular attractions, one where you can look forward to sitting down for a while, giving your tired feet a break. In fact, the lazy, meandering voyage down a tropical river is better known for the tour guides’ comical, almost kitschy banter than for its thrills, which may explain why it’s taken so long for Disney to turn it into a movie.
But the movie has, at last, arrived. And while the team of scriptwriters has certainly given the film much more excitement than the ride, it hasn’t betrayed the sense of meandering kitsch, either.
Not surprisingly, even the film’s action sequences feel comfortable. They play out like an Indiana Jones homage on a riverboat. You’ve got the restless natives, the über-aggressive (and ultimately incompetent) Germans, and the cartoonishly cursed bad guys. And snakes. So many snakes, poor Indy might need a visit to his therapist. But you’ve also got a team of intrepid explorers on a quest, wisecracking their way through a series of bad situations that you know will ultimately lead to what they’re looking for.
Fortunately for the film, those explorers are Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, whose acting chops and physical presence are seemingly made for this kind of movie.
As riverboat tour operator Frank, Johnson’s endless stream of dad jokes is more treacherous than the carefully choreographed dangers his passengers encounter on their voyage. As Lily, a brilliant botanist frustrated by her failure to win respect from her colleagues’ sexist boys club in unenlightened 1916 Britain, Blunt comes across as a tough tomboy who’s not afraid to prove her mettle in battle.
When the two of them come together – with Lily’s brother along for the ride – of course the sparks begin to fly. At first, they’re polar opposites on their voyage: Lily’s in it for humanitarian reasons, Frank’s in it for the money. But, as the characters make their way up the river, battles are fought, guards are let down, and secrets are revealed. Their romance is as unsurprising and predestined as their success in ultimately finding the magical healing leaves that grow on the mythical tree they’re searching for.
But, again, that lack of surprise provides a sense of comfort that ultimately makes for a winning formula. There’s no peril that can’t be conquered, no bad guy bad enough to stand in the way, and no argument big enough to keep our two stars from eventually falling for each other. Johnson and Blunt clearly had fun working with each other on the film, and that keeps you rooting for their romance.
Shot partially in Hawai’i, the movie’s jungle settings are appropriately lush and gorgeous, and its visual effects are often stunning. The supporting cast is steady, albeit somewhat stereotyped, and the always excellent Paul Giamatti is underutilized in what feels more like an extended cameo.
Like the theme park ride, this isn’t Disney at its best or its most exciting. But, like most Disney properties, it’s expertly made and entertaining. It’s got enough humor and action to satisfy the summer blockbuster crowd, along with that high comfort level which will make it easy viewing for most audiences. (With that in mind, we do offer the caveat that there’s a little more violence than you usually find in Disney fare, so you may want to consider that before showing it to young children.) In a summer that’s been anything but predictable, a little bit of predictable fun might be just what the doctor ordered.