My memory is failing me. As I begin this review of Jungle Cruise, I am trying to think of other movies that are based on popular amusement park rides. The only other one that I can think of is The Haunted Mansion (2003), another Disney property like Jungle Cruise. You would not think that something that takes a few minutes to get through (after sometimes standing in agonizingly long lines) would have enough material for a feature length film. Apparently, that would be where you are wrong. I know I saw The Haunted Mansion when it premiered in theaters. Dash if I can remember a single thing about it, other than its theme and the fact that Eddie Murphy is in it. It cannot have been that good, at any rate, though the ride remains among my favorites. I enjoy the faux boat trip that leant its name to Jungle Cruise, although the people I go with to the parks seldom seem to want to go on it. As for the movie, the Disney passholder in me enjoyed it, while the historian in me was ready to leave the theater almost as soon as it began.
Jungle Cruise sets the legendary stage by talking about a conquistador named Aguirre (Edgar Ramírez) who led an expedition deep into the wilds of the Amazon in search of a mysterious plant known as the Tears of the Moon. It has the ability to cure anything, so you can see why it is sought after and well-guarded. This is all being laid out to a group of scholars in London in 1916 by MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall), and he is requesting access to a strange arrowhead recently obtained by their society. This object is key to finding the location of the Tears of the Moon, but they all dismiss his claims as folderol. While MacGregor continues stringing along the society, his sister, Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt), sneaks into their storage and research rooms to steal the artifact anyway. Along the way, she is met by a German prince, Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons), though he does not reveal his identity right away, and who is also there to collect the arrowhead. Lily wants it to benefit mankind, while Joachim seeks to use it to make the German army invincible and win World War I. She narrowly escapes, and with her brother they travel to the deepest part of the Amazon to begin their search. Being that it is a rather large river, they are in need of a boat and a captain/guide to take them where they need to go. Enter Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), a wisecracking skipper with an aging vessel and a pet jaguar named Proxima. When they first encounter each other, Frank attempts to pass himself off as his main competitor, Nilo (Paul Giamatti), who has taken the engine to Frank’s boat and to whom he owes money. When Lily discovers this information, Frank agrees to take them for a much lower fee. As they are about to leave, Joachim catches up to them in a u-boat (history sigh). Using Frank’s (okay, Dwayne Johnson’s) muscle, they are able to break free of the town and give themselves some distance ahead of Joachim. From here, the movie is much like what the title suggests, a jungle cruise. In order to make up some lost river, Joachim is able to revive Aguirre and his men using river water, part of a curse placed on them by local indigenous peoples for attempting to take the Tears of the Moon. They will continue to live, but they must stay within sight of the river. Also, finding the petals of the plant and using them is the only way to lift the curse. Frank and company enlist the help of those same people in order to decipher the arrowhead and discover the true location of the plant. Unfortunately, this is when Aguirre attacks. Everyone survives, but Frank’s is a little more miraculous. As it turns out, he was one of Aguirre’s men, too. Now that they have everything they need, they head for the ancient temple containing the tree, but are followed by Joachim and Aguirre. In the resulting scuffle, Joachim is defeated and the cursed Spaniards are separated from the river (Frank included), thus frozen in place. Lily then uses the last remaining petal to save Frank, and they all live happily ever after in jolly Old England.
As I indicated in my opening paragraph, I am of two minds when it comes to Jungle Cruise. I love the Indiana Jones franchise as much as the next guy. Jungle Cruise hits all those same adventurous beats. There is archaeology, native cultures, mysticism, Germans, running, jumping, explosions, etc. All elements, in other words, that you have come to expect from the whip wielding archaeologist. Dr. Lily Houghton is a reasonable facsimile thereof, and Frank makes up for the rest. These are the parts I appreciated the most in the film. The history, unfortunately, had me cringing. You can call me all the names you like, but the notion of a German u-boat, of any era, going that far up the Amazon River is the kind of nonsense about which historians have nightmares. Its interior is all wrong as well, but I assume most of you have no interest in such details. Yet, the one thing that irritates me most is Lily’s clothing. It is not because of what it is, which is trousers and a button-down shirt, most of the time. It is because of the big deal that is made out of it, particularly by Frank. So taken aback is he by seeing a woman in something other than a dress that he takes to calling her “Pants” for the rest of the film. I suppose one could explain it away by saying that he had been living in the middle of the Amazon for the last three hundred plus years, and therefore does not understand modern fashion. And yet, there is a scene inside his cabin on the boat (which, like Joachim’s quarters on the u-boat, is all out of proportion for the vessel’s size) when we see him with all sorts of newspaper and magazine clippings from around the world, suggesting that he has at least been attempting to keep up with what is going on outside of his corner of South America. Yes, it was far more common for women in 1916 to be wearing a dress, but it was also not completely unheard of for them to wear something else. So, relax, Frank. Finally, what about World War I? You would hardly know it was going on, with tourists flocking to ride on Frank’s boat despite the worldwide conflict.
Speaking of history, I am okay with how Jungle Cruise handles conquistadors. Granted, it is absurd to turn them into immortal, super-powered individuals, but that is another issue entirely. Many of them, like the fictional Aguirre, came to the New World in search of legends and items with magical properties. What people seem to assume about the sixteenth century, if they assume anything at all, is that it was a time when Christianity reigned and the Church went after any alternative religions, hence the Spanish Inquisition. However, the average Catholic of the time existed in a world where Faith and magic existed side-by-side. The Church did not tolerate people believing in anything that was not Church teaching, but your everyday person also inherited a set of extra-religious traditions. Some of these the Church incorporated, others it persecuted. After all, God is who He is, and therefore it is useful to see how all phenomenon points to His glory. That is not entirely what is going on in the film, and it skirts any hint of Christianity. This is Hollywood, after all. Regardless, the tone is right with characters like Aguirre, fitting with the quests of other real conquistadors like Juan Ponce de Leon and his search for the so-called Fountain of Youth.
Because I am of two minds about Jungle Cruise, the opinions cancel each other out and I am left with meh. It is not a bad movie. It moves along at a fine pace, and I appreciated Lily’s desire to use the Tears of the Moon for good. It is strangely rated PG-13, which is probably because of some of the more violent parts. Still, I think it is safe enough for the whole family to enjoy.