“Jungle Cruise,” now playing in theatres and on Disney+ with premium access, is a new adventure story that reaches back into Hollywood history for inspiration. The Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson movie is based on the 65-year-old Disneyland riverboat cruise theme park ride, which, in turn, was inspired by the Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn’s antics in the 1951 film “The African Queen.” Add to that a hint of “Indiana Jones” and “Romancing the Stone,” and you have a family friendly film that simultaneously feels brand spankin’ new and old fashioned.
Blunt is the eccentric botanist Dr. Lily Houghton, an English adventurer in search of the Tree of Life, a mythical Amazonian tree whose “Tears of the Moon” blossoms are said to have healing properties. If she can find it and harness its powers, she believes it will be the beginning of a scientific revolution.
Travelling from London to the Amazon, she meets steamboat captain “Skipper” Frank Wolff (Johnson), a fast-talking cynic who reluctantly agrees to take her and her assistant, brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall), on his ramshackle boat into the heart of darkness. “If you believe in legends,” Frank says, “you should believe in curses too. It’s not a fun vacation.”
On the voyage up river they contend with slithery supernatural beings and the rival Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), a Hapsburg aristocrat determined to use brute force to reach the Tree of Life before Houghton, on a dangerous race against time.
Movies based on theme park rides have a checkered history. For every “Pirate of the Caribbean” that becomes a hit and spawns signals, there is a “The Haunted Mansion” or “Tomorrowland” gathering dust in a delete bin somewhere.
“Jungle Cruise” seems likely to avoid that fate. A classic adventure, it is an action-packed journey fuelled by the chemistry between the leads, Blunt and Johnson.
The opening half-hour actually feels like the theme park ride. It takes off like a rocket with one elaborately staged action scene after another. That sets the frenetic pace the movie keeps up for most of the running time, right up to a drawn-out ending that threatens to overstay its welcome, but doesn’t, courtesy of the actors.
Blunt and Johnson have great chemistry, verbally jousting throughout. It’s the “Romancing the Stone” template; they’re an odd couple who roast one another while dodging life-threatening situations and ultimately reveal their true feelings. The comic timing works and adds much charm to the action sequences.
Threatening to steal the show is Plemons, who reveals his rarely used comedic side. As the power-mad Prince Joachim, the actor embraces the cartoon aspects of the character, creating one of the best family-friendly villains in recent memory.
“Jungle Cruise” is much more fun than you might imagine a movie based on a theme park ride will be. There’s some dodgy CGI and a slightly over-inflated running time but it’s an old-fashioned adventure, updated with one character’s coming-out scene (no spoilers here) and a reversal of the theme park’s treatment of its Indigenous characters, that delivers action, humour and chemistry.