Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for Jungle Cruise.
Any review of Jungle Cruise on Disney+ needs to take into account the film’s price tag. Right now Jungle Cruise costs £20 in the UK or $30 in the United States to “unlock,” and thus the film’s value will vary from viewer to viewer. For my two cents, unless you’re a huge fan of the original Jungle Cruise ride at the Disney theme parks or a particular fan of either Dwayne Johnson or Emily Blunt, this is probably a film to wait for. In a matter of months, and certainly by Christmas, the film will be added to the regular Disney+ lineup, and though I had a decent enough time with Jungle Cruise, I’m not sure that I necessarily got £20 worth of enjoyment from it. If you’re on the fence, trying to decide whether to pay up or wait, I think this is one you can safely wait for.
That being said, Jungle Cruise was enjoyable. I’ve said this before, but in 2002-03 when Disney was talking about adapting Pirates of the Caribbean into a film, I thought it sounded like an atrocious idea! How could a theme park ride possibly translate to the screen, I wondered? I was wrong about Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl then, and if I had similar doubts about Jungle Cruise eighteen years later then I was wrong again! The film was decent, and paid homage to a classic ride which has been part of Disneyland since the very beginning.
If you’re fortunate enough to have ridden Jungle Cruise, you’ll recall that there is a “story” of sorts to the ride itself. Obviously the film takes liberties with this, chopping and changing things to make the story more suited to the screen rather than a semi-interactive theme park attraction. But I was surprised at just how well Jungle Cruise captured the feel of the original ride, with Dwayne Johnson’s character of Frank taking the role of the Disneyland boat captain from the attraction.
There were nods to other aspects of the ride as well, particularly in the film’s opening act with Frank’s literal jungle cruise entertaining the tourists with the same mixture of dad jokes and props as the ride itself. As the story went on, the film naturally stepped away from being true to the ride to focus on a story that was not dissimilar to the aforementioned Pirates of the Caribbean film, complete with cursed undead sailors, a magical macguffin, and lashings of aquatic adventure.
There were several surprisingly poignant and emotional moments in Jungle Cruise which I wasn’t expecting. Aside from the typical Disney happily ever after ending (complete with a fake-out sad ending which preceded it) the tastefully handled moment where Jack Whitehall’s character of MacGregor came out to Frank was a very sweet inclusion. Not only did it add personality and dimension to both characters – MacGregor gained a backstory of rejection and further reason to follow Lily, and Frank came across as accepting and kind – but it was a huge step for representation and inclusion. Seeing MacGregor experience rejection yet find acceptance in the most unlikely of places is a powerful message, and the mere act of LGBT+ representation in a blockbuster film is always fantastic to see. Such a message is especially important for younger viewers.
While we’re discussing some of Jungle Cruise’s deeper themes, the film took a dim view of wealth, aristocracy, and closed societies – despite practically all of its main characters being drawn from the upper classes of their day. MacGregor’s unease at having to experience life away from his home comforts was initially played for laughs – though he did become more comfortable with it as the film reached its end. The villain of the piece being a German aristocrat was also a continuation of this theme, as was the initial depiction of Frank as the last independent river boat captain – and the poorest.
Having seen a number of films with British villains over the last few years, the decision to make the German Prince Joachim the main adversary to Frank and Lily was actually a bit of a change. There was a time a few years ago where villains in cinema were often German – or of German extraction. But enough time has passed and enough other villains have come and gone that the return to a German villain didn’t feel like stereotyping or a trope in the way it might’ve done had Jungle Cruise been made in the recent past.
The story itself took a couple of unexpected twists. The revelation that Frank wasn’t who he seemed to be definitely came as a shock – but in a good way! Sometimes twists of this nature can feel rushed or like they jolt the story in an unwanted direction, but learning Frank’s true origin managed to avoid that pitfall. It made his character feel more rounded and gave him motivation. We learn why he wanted to take Lily upriver – and why he was so convinced she wouldn’t succeed in her quest to find the Tears of the Moon.
Frank’s “betrayal” of Lily and MacGregor – which he apparently set up off-screen with Trader Sam and her tribe – was perhaps the weakest moment in the story. It did nothing to endear us to Frank, and while it was arguably in character for him it robbed what was initially set up as a tense moment of practically all of its drama. Though the threat and peril were restored after a brief respite, the way the film handled this moment was poor overall.
Representation of native peoples and their relationship to colonists has come a long way in recent years, and when looking back at past Disney depictions of indigenous peoples – such as in Peter Pan or even the original incarnation of the Jungle Cruise attraction – the way the “headhunter” tribe was presented was an improvement. Considering the tribe played a relatively minor role in the film, what we saw worked well. The depiction retained some of the mystery that westerners have of indigenous peoples – something that the original ride drew on for part of its threat – yet at the same time made at least one key character relatable.
Jungle Cruise also didn’t shy away from depicting the brutality of colonisation, showing Conquistadors savagely attacking a tribe of native people even after being offered shelter, food, and medicine. However, the film then immediately strayed into once again mystifying the tribespeople by giving them magical powers seemingly connected to the Tree of Life. Overall, the way Jungle Cruise handled its characters’ interactions with indigenous people was better than in some Disney titles, particularly older ones, but arguably imperfect and verging into some of the tropes commonly associated with such tribes in fiction.
Aside from the opening act, which was set in London, and a few other scenes near the beginning of the piece, Jungle Cruise broadly stayed true to its premise as a film about a voyage on a riverboat. The boat itself had character, being old and beaten-up, and was memorable for the way it looked while again retaining some of the charm of the original Disneyland attraction. Quila (Frank’s boat) was not only the characters’ home and method of transportation, but also played a key role toward the end of the story by blocking the river water and saving Lily and MacGregor. Giving the boat more to do in the story than simply be an ever-present stage for the characters made a huge difference to the film, and made its setting feel meaningful.
Though the Conquistadors wanted to kill Frank – and later Prince Joachim – they seem to have had similar objectives when it comes to acquiring and using the Tears of the Moon, and as a result some of the moments toward the film’s climax felt rather forced. Obviously Lily and MacGregor had an incentive to stop the Prince and his gang of German submariners, as they clearly had nefarious intentions for the magical macguffin. But the Conquistadors had basically the same objective as Frank – to lift their curse – and it felt like there could have been a moment near the end of the film where they had all realised that they didn’t need to fight. In fact I initially wondered if Prince Joachim’s betrayal of the Conquistadors was going to set up precisely that kind of storyline. It feels like a miss that it didn’t, as the film basically ended with the heroes defeating two parties of villains.
There’s always room in fiction for that kind of narrative; not every story has to depict an emotional coming together and teaming up to defeat a worse villain. But the disturbing implication to the way Frank’s story ended is that he simply left the Conquistadors to endure endless torture; they’re unable to die and it didn’t seem as though he took action to lift their curse. Perhaps this is Disney leaving the door open to a sequel?
Speaking of the way the film ended, with Frank and Lily only able to pluck a single petal from the tree, all Lily really got to do was write up her adventure and land herself a job. In the male-dominated world that the film depicted that is unquestionably a victory for her – but her original ambition had been to use the Tears of the Moon to “revolutionise medicine” and save countless lives, not least in the ongoing First World War. It seems as though this ambition was thwarted, yet the film skips over this point.
Jack Whitehall is not someone I would have expected to see in a film like Jungle Cruise, but he put in a creditable performance as MacGregor. His stand-up act often draws on his self-styled “posh” image, and his character felt like an exaggerated version of that in some respects. Emily Blunt was outstanding in the role of Lily, bringing real personality to the character and crafting a heroine that we as the audience wanted to get behind. Dwayne Johnson seemed at first to be playing a fairly typical “Dwayne Johnson” role, but the addition of an unexpected backstory for his character of Frank took the character to a different place and forced him to step out of his comfort zone and play things differently as the film passed the two-thirds mark. Though perhaps it wasn’t an Oscar-worthy performance, I found Frank to be a believable protagonist and someone I wanted to see succeed.
Jungle Cruise relied heavily on CGI almost throughout, and not all of the animation work was as realistic as it could’ve been. Recent productions, even on television, have seen some truly outstanding CGI work, and while nothing in Jungle Cruise was awful or even immersion-breaking, there were quite a few elements that didn’t look quite right. At a number of points I felt that some of the CGI had that “too shiny,” plastic look that plagued CGI a few years ago, and I really thought that animation – especially cinematic animation – had begun to move past that particular issue.
I would’ve liked to have seen more physical props and practical effects, and the fact that a large portion of Jungle Cruise was filmed with green screens and other modern tricks wasn’t as well-concealed as it might’ve been. And perhaps this final point on visuals is a bit of a nitpick, but the fact that a number of the so-called “jungle” sequences were filmed not in South America but in Hawai’i was apparent to anyone who knows their flora! Different biomes do look different from one another, and a few scenes in particular which supposedly took place on the banks of the Amazon were very clearly filmed elsewhere. I know that’s a minor point that won’t have bugged many people, but I found it worth noting.
So that’s about all I have to say, I think. Jungle Cruise certainly compares to the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean and other fantasy-adventure titles. It was fun, emotional at points, and set up its trio of main characters for a story that was easy enough to follow for kids while still having plenty to offer for adults as well. It stands up well against many adventure films, including classics of the genre like Indiana Jones – which Jungle Cruise was clearly channelling at points!
I had an enjoyable time with Jungle Cruise, and it was a fun way to spend a couple of hours. Whether it will be worth the cost of admission on Disney+ is something everyone will have to decide for themselves, but I think it’ll still be an enjoyable watch in a couple of months’ time. Jungle Cruise presented a fun story that drew inspiration from the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean, yet stayed true to its origins as a theme park attraction. It was a fun ride down the river with Frank, Lily, and MacGregor, and I’m sure I’ll have fun watching the film for a second and third time in the future; it’s definitely one to return to when I’m in the mood for adventure!
Jungle Cruise is available to stream now on Disney+ Premier Access (for a fee). Jungle Cruise is the copyright of Walt Disney Pictures and The Walt Disney Company. Some promotional images courtesy of The Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.