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Jungle Cruise

***1/2

by Matt Anderson

published July 30, 2021

Buoyed by the chemistry between Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson, Jungle Cruise takes full advantage of its humor-filled source material as it grows into a fun ride all its own.

Backside of Water

It’s a great setup. Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place) is introduced as an Indiana Jane-type named Lily Houghton. Strong-willed and adventurous, she isn’t troubled by snakes, but she can’t swim.

Jesse Plemons (Game Night) is Kaiser Wilhelm’s son, Prince Joachim. He’s on a quest to find tree leaves with healing properties and therewith lead Germany to world domination (it’s 1916 and the world’s mired in the thick of the Great War).

Then there’s Dwayne Johnson (Jumanji: The Next Level) as Frank Wolff. He’s a jungle cruise captain in the Amazon; he uses old-school levers and mechanical trickery to stage hand-crafted versions of the popular, classic Disney amusement park ride (that’s still decades away) and he enlists friends to play cannibals and join in the shenanigans. Plus, he likes puns. Lots and lots and lots of bad (but hilarious) puns. The guy can’t stop.

But, more importantly, Frank also has a great, surprising back story. No more will be said about that here, though.

And, finally, there’s the Spanish conquistador named Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez, Gold), who figures in by way of historical flashbacks. (Adventurous moviegoers might want to check out Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.)

Aguirre’s one reason why movies like this can be so much fun. Sure, there’s the adventure, the humor, the romance. All that stuff matters. But, like the various treasures the heroes pursue, the Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean movies — and even The Legend of Tarzan and the Robert Langdon (DaVinci Code) movies — all base their storylines on real history, real legends, real lore. Happily, the same logic applies here. They’re invitations to dig into the source history for even more rewards.

Tears of the Moon

There really was a Spanish explorer named Aguirre roaming the Amazon. Historically, he was searching for El Dorado, the famed city of gold that figured into the criminally under-appreciated Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. And Kaiser Wilhelm did have a son, Prince Joachim.

However, the departure here lies in the object of their desire. In this adventure, all these characters are searching for a tree with petals called Tears of the Moon. A single petal — so the legend goes — can cure all manner of illnesses.

What starts as a high-level lark gradually gets more and more detailed with the history, the journey and the characters. And some of those details are mighty terrific, with ambitions elevating the movie well above any mere stab at cashing in on a beloved Disney property.

In the fine tradition of these adventures, there’s an item — a coveted treasure in its own right — that serves as a key to solving the mystery, finding the path, decoding the message. In this case, it’s an arrowhead. But that ornate arrowhead is much more than it seems.

Most significantly, it’s the characters that drive the action and adventure. Without a care for them — whether it’s Elizabeth Swann or Lily Houghton, Indiana Jones or Frank Wolff — none of it would matter.

With Lily and Frank, they’re certainly an unlikely couple, but they work off each other well. She calls him “Skippy” and he calls her “Pants.” (He simply can’t get past the idea of a woman wearing pants.) Together, they have a spark and they also share a perilous underwater excursion that — in the interest of life preservation — leads to a creative excuse for a first kiss.

Safety Last

Not all amusement park rides translate into great movies; The Pirates of the Caribbean caught lightning in a bottle with some great characters (Jack Sparrow, Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner) and lots of witty dialogue and humor. While that ride went on to launch five blockbusters, Haunted Mansion didn’t fare so well, even with Eddie Murphy as its star (a new version with Tiffany Haddish is in the works). Rollercoaster – way back in 1977 – didn’t quite catch on in the wake of Star Wars, but it was affectionately dubbed the Citizen Kane of rollercoaster movies by Ron Mael of the Sparks Brothers, who appear in the movie.

Here, by finding the right story and the right characters, the writers (an unwieldy team of five with such diverse titles as Blade Runner 2049, Bad Santa and Tin Cup in their portfolio) latch on to the setting and the history to play with notions of how far society has come in the past 100 years (and, perhaps, how far it still has to go).

One of the movie’s historical riffs is on the gender bias of early 20th century England and the stodgy academic and elite institutions that funded dangerous expeditions around the world (see also The Lost City of Z, based on a true story). A little surprisingly, Jungle Cruise also throws in a reference to sexual orientation that seems a bit forced, but at the same time, it also serves to further define Lily’s leadership bent.