An Edwardian scientist and her brother hire a local river captain to transport them along the Amazon in search of a mystical tree which could revolutionise medicine.
Curses! Jungle Cruise sails very familiar territory. A lot of Indiana Jones, a hefty helping of Pirates Of The Caribbean, a dollop of Das Boot and a soupçon of Apocalypse Now. Okay maybe not those last two. No wait, definitely those last two.
Jungle Cruise is nothing if not appropriative and would, without these contributions, be, well, nothing. Still, hero riverboat captain Frank (Dwayne Johnson) isn’t above a little appropriation himself, scaring his uptight Edwardian river cruise customers with fake hippos and dressed-up tribespeople.
It’s still good fun though, in a jolly hockey sticks sort of way, with the three central performers, and supporting characters, slotting together very well in their stereotyped roles, yes even Jack Whitehall.
Whitehall is rather sweet as rich twentysomething MacGregor Houghton, extremely fastidious but very loyal to his go-getting big sis Lily (Emily Blunt). He also looks amazing at all times as they sail down the Amazon on Frank’s rickety old steamer, dressing for dinner, risking all-white suits for daytime and stunning in a frankly gorgeous dark pink linen jacket. Blunt also looks unrealistically luminous throughout, considering the privations they suffer, but I got the impression that if this hodgepodge of magical mayhem was actually true MacGregor genuinely would refuse to let standards drop while Lily genuinely wouldn’t. Her perfection is simply down to Hollywood norms — her blouses always remaining crease-free despite the humidity, her hair always glossy.
So in short, or long if you waded through that paragraph above, I am siding very much with MacGregor on this trip, who knows it is much easier to face the terrors of the big bad (under)world when one is properly dressed and just had a decent (ie eight-course) dinner.
Lily, a scientist, is looking for a tree of life: the Tears of the Moon, with its magical blooms that can cure illness and lift curses. It’s somewhere down the Amazon, and to go with her old and rather basic map she steals an arrowhead connected to it from the stuffed old farts at London’s Royal Society. Also after the arrowhead, and the flowers, is Prince Joachim (a delightfully silly yet threatening Jesse Plemons), a German prince who wants to use the petals to help Germany win the war and also rule it for generations to come. He follows Lily and her brother to a port on the Amazon, and then down the river itself, in — wait for it — a submarine. It’s hard to hate him too much though as he makes a mean pot of tea, good enough for the parched MacGregor to later give away a key location in exchange for a cup. (I would have done the same.)
Jungle Cruise is fondly amusing — hilarious if you like terrible puns, of which Frank is a master. Sadly none of his customers — in the boat, or at my cinema showing — think he’s funny, and in our half-full screening I was often the only one laughing. (There is one terrific joke at the end, when MacGregor lectures the Royal Society on what they’ve seen. While they can cope with magical seals that can haunt your dreams and whatnot, a local tribe led by a woman is simply too much for them to accept and there’s a sharp intake of breath.)
The submarine, and its bemedalled commander Prince Joachim, is so anachronistic it makes the film through sheer presence. Watching Frank’s cranky old boat pursued by actual torpedoes before they’ve even left safe(ish) harbour is balm for the soul after a movie diet of all-too-realistic indie gloom.
On Frank’s ramshackle boat La Quila the action is more expected, helped by Johnson and Blunt’s warm chemistry. For Frank, a man who has seen a lot in his years on Earth, the biggest shock is not that Lily metaphorically wears the trousers but that Lily literally wears the trousers, and on their journey up the great river the two indulge in some mild verbal sparring and disagreements over tactics.
MacGregor freaks out over everything, before a sweet heart-to-heart with Frank where he explains that he is gay and Lily has been protecting him from high society’s condemnation. Every now and then Joachim reappears, usually just when we’ve forgotten about him: freeing a bunch of ancient cursed conquistadors from their stony prison, or surfacing in his submarine.
Frank has his own secret, and his extremely long backstory was a complete surprise to me; it’s rather clever considering fairground rides go on and on, cursed to repeat the same cycle for all eternity (you can read about it here if you are in the mood for spoilers). I have no idea if any of Jungle Cruise‘s “story” actually has any place on the Disney ride on which the movie is based, as I hate all but the most basic fairground rides (I am looking forward to a low-budget, gritty Britflick based on the waltzer though).
It’s sweetly thrilling — Jungle Cruise, not the waltzer, which is terrifying — with some good visuals: their bumpy travails down some water rapids known as the Butterchurn, the colour and splendour of their capture by a cannibalistic tribe, the tree itself. For most of the trip they are bathed in a golden glow, which adds to the magical ambience.
The horrors are expected: lots of snakes, crawling through the mouths and cheeks of both the living and the dead; piranhas; and no bath on board, despite Frank claiming there was one to secure Lily’s business.
There is literally nothing in any of the characters that we haven’t seen and heard before. There’s even a drunk leopard (called Proxima, a name explained when we find out more about serial cat owner Frank).
I took both my tweens to see this. They enjoyed it but felt it was too long, as did I. The younger one declared afterwards that “there was too much going on to get my head around”, which is true, though none of us can remember much of what happened now. And while the movie is predicable, so were some of their responses. Sat between the two, when Lily and Frank finally kissed, I heard a “yuck” from one side and suppressed giggles from the other.
Jungle Cruise is out in UK cinemas now.
Read my very spoilery article I’ll be Frank: spoilers ahoy.
Watch the Jungle Cruise trailer now: