Many critics who will write about Disney’s latest theme park ride turned picture, Jungle Cruise, will inevitably compare it to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, either for better or worse. That might be fair, only because Jungle Cruise derives itself from a Disneyland theme park ride, but like Pirates, it also eventually transcends its theme park source material.
Instead of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow, we have two equally charismatic characters, played by Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, who meet in their respective environments before they inevitably come crashing together.
The time is 1916, and England is at war, but botanist Dr. Lily Houghton (Blunt) just wants to travel down to the Amazon where she can track down the Tears of the Moon, an orchid-like tree frond that offers medicinal qualities. Many men have been trying hundreds of years to track it down for the good of science, or for more devious reasons, but she travels down to Brazil with her less-than-Amazon-ready brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) to find it. They end up hiring Johnson’s Captain Frank, whose decrepit riverboat, the La Quilla, doesn’t seem like it could get them very far, but the price seems right.
Quarrelling from the moment they meet, Lily and Frank are unaware that she’s been tracked from England by Jesse Plemons’ German Prince Joaquim, who wants to retrieve an Arrowhead trinket stolen from him by Lily that leads the way to the mythic tree bearing the Tears. Others also want to get their hands on the Tears, as Lily, Frank and MacGregor face the perilous travails of the Amazon and the often deadly wonders of its jungle.
Director Jaume Collet-Sera cut his teeth on horror movies, transitioned over to Liam Neeson thrillers, and he even made a shark movie, but he’s never made a movie quite Jungle Cruise. From jump, there’s something fairly reminiscent of the way the film’s fantastic sights capture your eye and fancy, as well as the pacing of the often comedic action sequences. If you’ve been alive long enough to see some of the great live-action Disney movies of the ‘70s, then you’ll quickly realize what a treat you’re in for.
Those hoping for something akin to the 1999 The Mummy or Romancing the Stone should be suitably thrilled by the comparable chemistry between Johnson and Blunt, always emitting the type of will-they-or-won’t-they vibe that makes them such a fantastic onscreen pair. And yet, it never takes away from the fact that Blunt’s character could easily carry a movie like this on her own, as she could easily be compared to a female Indiana Jones. Whitehall brings all sorts of constant laughs without ever feeling like a third wheel, while the formerly-underrated Plemons seems to derive great joy from playing such a scenery-chewing villain.
Without knowing how long Disney has been trying to develop this movie, it’s hard to determine who really should get the most credit for the film’s fantastic screenplay. Only the writing duo of Glen Ficcara & John Requa along with Michael Green are credited for the screenplay with another writing team co-credited for the screen story, but somehow all the pieces came together in the way they did so that Jungle Cruise offers the familiarity of great Disney movies of old (yes, including Pirates) while also taking its very own unique path.
I could probably spend another thousand words or more just talking about the impeccable job by Collet-Sera and his entire team at making this impressive action-adventure come to life, but instead, I’ll focus on just a few key crafts.
Firstly, Production Designer Jean-Vincent Puzos gives the entire film a look that combines authenticity with fantasy, from the crowded London streets of 1916 during the early days of the automobile, to every fantastic Amazon landscape. You may snicker a little when you realize Puzos performed the same function on James Gray’s similarly-set Lost City of Z, which went for straight realism and zero fantasy. You’ll know Costume Designer Paco Delgado’s grandest moment when you see it. (Or you can just look at the picture above this paragraph.)
A lot of what Puzos and his art teams has designed is brought to life by the massive team of animators and other specialists led by VFX Supervisors Jim Berney and Jake Morrison, particularly those expansive wide-screen environments, but also things like Captain Frank’s pet cheetah, Proxima, and lots of other critters. You can kind of tell which beasties and creatures got the most VFX attention, as there are a few insects and smaller creatures where photorealism was not important. Even more amazing is the fact that almost every single scene in Jungle Cruise must involve some level of VFX, which is just part of the grand movie magic this important field brings to the movie. There are many highlights, like when Edgar Ramirez’s long-lost Spanish explorer Aguirre returns with his men, transformed with some of the most impressive CG of the entire film.
Maybe the editing by Joel Negron ACE will be a little too rapid-fire for some to keep up with, but there’s little denying how much of the pacing works, whether it’s in an action set piece or the quippy jabs between Lily and Frank, due to his work. When you break down why Jungle Cruise seems to move at a breakneck speed and never lose the viewer’s attention over its two hours, Negron’s editing is a key factor.
Composer James Newton Howard has created another fantastic score that drives every bit of action and every shred of emotion, to the point I was shocked to only find out he did the music when his credit hit the screen. Listen, I’ve been a bonafide and unrepentant Howard stan for some time, and I doubt I’ll find a more exciting score if I spend the rest of the year looking, or rather, listening.
More than just a technical Marvel, Jungle Cruise is pure Disney magic — a majestic action-adventure that keeps you amped up with its quick-paced action and a perpetually entertaining sense of humor. It’s the type of movie that begs to be seen in a theatrical setting to fully appreciate all the work done by those involved, but more than that, it feels like the kind of movie people will want to see over and over.
Jungle Cruise opens nationwide in theaters and on Disney+ with Premier Access (for $29.99) on Friday, July 30 with theatrical previews on Thursday night.
All photos courtesy Walt Disney Pictures.