Movies have long inspired theme-park attractions like Cinderella’s Castle at Disney World, but the reverse doesn’t always work, with a mixed track record for movies based on rides.
“Pirates of the Caribbean” (2001) launched a beloved franchise with Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow, but “The Haunted Mansion” (2003) stumbled in spite of Eddie Murphy.
This Friday, Disney tries it again with the theatrical and Disney+ release “Jungle Cruise,” kept afloat by charming leads for a throwback adventure like “Romancing the Stone.”
The story follows experienced riverboat captain Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), who takes eccentric scientist Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) and her reluctant brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) on a dangerous ride through the jungles of the Amazon River.
Dressed head to toe in a skipper’s outfit, The Rock looks straight out of John Huston’s “The African Queen” (1951) only if Humphrey Bogart were a bodybuilder instead of a noir alum braving the rapids for an overdue Oscar. The Rock won’t win here, but his comedic timing for pun-filled dialogue makes him an undeniable delight in almost everything.
Blunt is a generational talent from “Edge of Tomorrow” to “A Quiet Place.” She reunites with Disney after “Mary Poppins Returns” for a swashbuckling opening library heist, swinging from ropes and riding bookshelf ladders. There’s even an homage to that classic scene where Indiana Jones timed his floor stomps with a librarian stamping books.
Together, Blunt and Johnson find great romantic chemistry with shots of them staring at each other on the boat until the script invents a clever way for them to kiss. Best of all are their sarcastic nicknames for each other, her calling him “Skippy,” him calling her “Pants,” a reference to her character’s proto-feminist choice to wear trousers like one of the boys.
Whitehall goes the other way as Disney boards the LGBTQ+ boat after dipping its toe in the water in the live-action “Beauty and the Beast” and the animated “Luca.” His sexual preference is hinted at early on as Whitehall packs outfits for the trip. It’s confirmed later with a heart-to-heart chat with The Rock, who responds with kind matter-of-factness.
The script is peppered with sexual innuendo that will fly over the heads of kids but is meant for parents to enjoy. There’s even some homoerotic tension between Whitehall and Jesse Plemons (“Breaking Bad,” “Judas and the Black Messiah”), who chews the scenery as a stereotypical Nazi villain in a German submarine. Down periscope!
A lot has changed in our world politically since the theme park ride opened in 1955. Disney World recently updated the ride to address criticisms of the way the ride depicted natives as savages, and the film responds in kind by having The Rock emulate tour-guide jokes as he nods to actors “in on the joke” playing the natives to entertain his paying passengers.
It’s the first hint that there’s more to this story than a straightforward river ride. Fantasy elements magically bring a centuries-old conquistador back to life. While the supernatural foe is cleverly named after Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God” (1972), his look is pretty derivative of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” villain, but far less effective.
If you can stomach the CGI conquistador for the last 15 minutes, it’s well worth buying a ticket on this river ride. There’s action, there’s romance and, if you like puns, plenty of comedy. You might even be inspired to come up with puns of your own, realizing that “Jungle Cruise” is set on a giant Amazon stream that’s not streaming on Amazon.