‘Jungle Cruise’ Review: A fresh, adventurous return to the summer family blockbuster

A real family adventure film seems like a rarity nowadays – original works are sidelined and replaced with franchise fare with a predictable box-office draw. It’s been a while since we’ve seen the likes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser, where A-list stars have to fight their way through harsh terrain and brain-teasing clues. Jungle Cruise marks the return of this kind of adventure film, even though it clearly borrows much from its predecessors. Disney’s theme park ride-inspired blockbuster has everything from action to adventure, spectacle to romance, and the lead cast are clearly having as much fun as it is to watch them.

Emily Blunt, Dwayne Johnson, and Jack Whitehall scour old-fashioned maps and fight natural and supernatural foes alike to claim the Tears of the Moon – the petal of a magical tree that can cure any ailment. Blunt’s Dr. Lily Houghton and her brother MacGregor (Whitehall) seek it to revolutionise medical science. Her German adversary Prince Joachim (played gleefully by Jesse Plemons) is hot on her heels, and she is forced to hire charismatic riverboat tour guide Frank (Johnson) to sail them to their destination.

Even in slow moments where the leading trio isn’t in imminent danger, the film keeps us thrilled through their magnetic chemistry. Blunt and Johnson especially seem to be getting along like a house on fire, throwing around banter, witty dialogue, and dad jokes. The script is a bit too preoccupied with witty dialogue and occasionally neglects actual character development, but our main characters are perfectly likable regardless. The dad jokes, mostly told by Frank, are great, but sometimes a bit flatly delivered. I didn’t expect Emily Blunt to out-charisma The Rock, but here we are.

As good as Jack Whitehall is as McGregor, this character is the most disappointing from a writing standpoint. He has long been reported as Disney’s “first openly gay” character, but like previous times this has been said, it has turned out to be an overstatement. MacGregor’s sexuality is more implied than it is overt, and then (rather insultingly) the implication is made through deploying the stereotype of the effeminate, clothes-loving gay man. It’s surprising that Disney is trying to celebrate MacGregor as a step forward for LGBTQ+ representation, because they can, and should, do better.

Representation aside, Jungle Cruise is otherwise a good all-rounder of a film. The characters are likable, the scenery vivid, and the air of danger palpable. However, in their eagerness to produce a perfectly polished Disney product, it often feels that the crew went a bit heavy-handed on the special effects. The film has a good balance of natural and supernatural villains, but the latter are so CGI-heavy they’re taken a little ways into the uncanny valley. On one hand, their clearly fake appearance is an effective way of making them unsettling, on the other, it distinctly feels like they could have been improved with practical effects. There are parts of Jungle Cruise that show that computer-generated imagery is not always superior.

Jungle Cruise is a fun, adventurous, and fantastical feature that marks the return of the summer blockbuster. It might be based on a theme park ride, but it has a freshness and excitement to it that makes it feel like an original work. In this age of franchises, it’s a breath of fresh air that is desperately needed.

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