Let’s start by addressing the elephant in the river. Jungle Cruise (★★★☆☆) is the first major Disney movie to allow a gay character to come out and say as much. There’s nothing coded or “winky-winky” about the character of MacGregor Houghton (Jack Whitehall), other than he’s an endearingly prissy British fop (“Dinner without a dinner jacket is hardly dinner, is it?”) who would feel right at home upstairs at Downton Abbey.
We have our suspicions that this fluttery chap plays for our team, but he confirms it midway during a lull in the movie’s otherwise nonstop action. “My interests happily lie elsewhere,” he quietly tells Frank (Dwayne Johnson), the captain of the ship Mac and his thrill-prone sister, Lily (Emily Blunt), have hired to pilot them through the Amazon in search of a flower with magical healing properties. Mac then talks about how only his beloved Lily, whose life credo is “Head first, figure it out on the way down,” supported him when the rest of the family ostracized him “all because of who I loved.”
The moment, as played by Whitehall, is tender and affecting, and shows a measure of growth in Disney’s approach to its family fare. It’s a baby step, sure, but it’s one in the right direction. Inclusion has been inching its way into Disney’s live-action offerings for a while now — Beauty and the Beast had LeFou and Cruella had Artie — but this feels different, this is different. It has genuine heart and substance — quite possibly the only heart and substance in a film that is otherwise a bat-crazed, off-the-rails action romp cast in the mold of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone.
The charismatic Whitehall, a household name in the U.K., steals the film every time he’s on screen. His wide-eyed expressions are larger-than-life yet somehow grounded, and his grand comic gestures feel fresh and intuitive. If MacGregor is not explicitly gay, bear in mind that the setting for the film is the early 1900s, hardly a time when gay people were marching through the streets with pride.
As for the rest of the film, it’s a solidly entertaining affair, filled with Easter Eggs from the classic Disneyland ride, bad jokes (“the backside of water”), and even a politically correct adjustment of the ride’s racially problematic, now vanquished “Trader Sam.” If the movie doesn’t quite achieve the rapturous cinematic pleasures of Pirates of the Caribbean, that’s largely due to the lack of a visionary director like Gore Verbinski. Director Jaume Collet-Serra is very competent at moving the story from square to square, as though playing a board game, tongue determinedly sticking out of the corner of his mouth, but he utterly lacks any fundamentals of visual style.
Emily Blunt channels her best African Queen Katherine Hepburn as the headstrong Lily. But Johnson remains a living lump on screen. He has charm, but only up to a point. There’s a reason his nickname is “The Rock.” As the movie’s main baddie, Jesse Plemons views all scenery as a personal buffet while alternate baddie Edgar Ramirez is, sadly, relegated into a CGI territory that feels as though it were a byproduct of budget cuts.
As summer escapism, you could do a lot worse than Jungle Cruise. Even if you know exactly where it’s headed at all times — although there is one twist you won’t see coming — it’s the ride that counts. And this ride is, more or less, worth the price of admission.
Jungle Cruise is rated PG-13 and is now playing in theaters and through Premier Access on Disney+. Visit www.disneyplus.com.
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