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Jungle Cruise review: Disney’s river adventure makes it easy to get swept away

Disney’s film vault is filled with blockbusters, but the studio doesn’t have the best record when it comes to turning its popular theme park attractions into movies. Out of six attempts at starting a new franchise, only Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl managed to achieve the kind of success one expects from a Disney feature. All of the rest — from 1997’s Tower of Terror to 2015’s Tomorrowland — have been critical and commercial disappointments.

Disney is persistent, though, and that’s good — because the latest ride-to-film adaptation, Jungle Cruise, feels like the fresh hit they’ve been searching for all along.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Jungle Cruise casts the wonderfully talented Emily Blunt as Dr. Lily Houghton, a scientist during the World War I era who refuses to let the oppressive, male-dominated scientific community hamper her quest for the Tree of Life, an arboreal enigma of the deep jungle rumored to have magical healing properties. Along with her brother, a dapper British bachelor played by Jack Whitehall, Lily embarks on a journey into the jungle guided by Frank Wolff, a charismatic steamboat captain played by Dwayne Johnson. The trio is menaced by threats from both the jungle itself and a sinister German royal played by Jesse Plemons, who wants the Tree of Life’s secrets for his own nefarious purposes.

Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, and Jack Whitehall in a scene from Disney's Jungle Cruise movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Three times the charm

It’s no surprise that both Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt are endlessly entertaining to watch in Jungle Cruise, as the pair have proven themselves many times over in roles that blend action and humor in films that also rely heavily on visual effects. They’re both in top form in the film, with great chemistry that makes every scene they share entertaining.

More unexpected, however, is the energy and positive attributes that Jack Whitehall brings to the film in a role that could have easily become a disposable, third-wheel character. Whitehall’s character initially appears to be the typical caricature of a British dandy, but as the film unfolds, the combination of the Bad Education actor’s performance and the script’s unwillingness to let him disappear into the background make him one of the story’s most fascinating, fun characters.

While Johnson and Blunt hit all the right notes to keep Jungle Cruise funny and sweep you along, it’s Whitehall’s character that keeps the story feeling fresh and less predictable.

Jack Whitehall and Emily Blunt in a scene from Disney's Jungle Cruise movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

More Pirates, less Haunted Mansion

On the surface, Jungle Cruise seems to follow the formula that made the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise so successful: Take two, strong-willed lead characters destined for romantic entanglement, add a charming wildcard to the mix, and fill their adventure with plenty of dark, fantastic eye candy. It’s hard to argue against the formula, too, given the Pirates franchise’s $4.5 billion dollar haul across five films.

Fortunately, Jungle Cruise puts its own stamp on that basic structure, with Johnson and Blunt filling the film with a level of charisma and witty banter to match its impressive action, and Whitehall’s performance complementing those of the leads instead of distracting from them.

The story also strikes just the right balance of humor, heart, and horror — much like the aforementioned Pirates films. There’s an emotional core to each of the characters in Jungle Cruise that comes across enough to give them depth without bogging down the story, and they play off each other well, whether they’re sharing a sad memory, spouting bad puns, or fleeing all manner of deadly threats — supernatural or otherwise.

Dwayne Johnson in a scene from Disney's Jungle Cruise movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Dark and delightful

Much like the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Jungle Cruise delivers plenty of impressive visual effects that are both beautiful and terrifying to behold.

Johnson and Blunt are no stranger to effects-driven features, and Jungle Cruise delivers some truly memorable moments of spectacle. As the story progresses, the trio of adventurers finds themselves contending with various magical threats in addition to dangers presented by humans and the usual range of jungle creatures. Without venturing into spoiler territory, these supernatural enemies are depicted in some creative, technically impressive ways that make each enemy stand out from the rest.

That attention to detail made Davy Jones’ crew of mutated, ghostly pirates in 2006’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest one of the film’s most memorable elements, and it’s on full display in Jungle Cruise when the story embraces its mystical dark potential.

Jack Whitehall, Emily Blunt, and Dwayne Johnson in a scene from Disney's Jungle Cruise movie.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Rolling on the river

Whether Jungle Cruise kicks off a new franchise for Disney or ends up a standalone adventure, the film offers an extremely satisfying, exciting movie experience for the whole family.

Johnson and Blunt are at their best in the film, with Whitehall making a good story even better with his performance. All of that entertainment is supported by a great cast of secondary characters and breathtaking visual effects that make the world of Jungle Cruise vibrant and enchanting throughout the trio’s adventure.

It’s no simple task to turn a theme-park attraction into a compelling big-screen adventure, but a great cast, impressive visual effects, and a fun story help Disney make it look easy in Jungle Cruise.

Disney’s Jungle Cruise premieres July 30 in theaters and on the Disney+ streaming service with Premier Access (at an additional cost).

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Rick Marshall
A veteran journalist with more than two decades of experience covering local and national news, arts and entertainment, and…
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