The key get: swashbuckling A-list actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and his production company signing on in 2015. But it still took two more years to cobble together a usable script and land British actress Emily Blunt (”Mary Poppins,” “A Quiet Place”) as Johnson’s verbal sparring partner and love interest.
“Jungle Cruise,” set in 1916, features pun-loving Amazonian jungle cruise operator Frank (Johnson), feminist adventurer and doctor Lily (Blunt) and Lily’s peevishly protective brother MacGregor (British comic Jack Whitehall).
Lily is seeking the legendary Tree of Life, whose petals provide an elixir for any illness. Of course, “Indiana Jones”-style, a grandiose German aristocrat Prince Joachim played by Jesse Plemons (”Breaking Bad”) with arched eyebrow and cartoonish accent is chasing after the same prize. And there’s a third rival: 400-year-old conquistador spirit types led by Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez). Throw in a jaguar as Frank’s sidekick and this world is sufficiently fantastical.
But ultimately, the plot is secondary to the snarky interplay among the main characters that signal this film is a bumpy, but ultimately family-friendly, ride with a preordained cheerful ending.
Johnson in interviews has said “Jungle Cruise” pays homage to the original 1981 classic “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the 1984 madcap Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner hit “Romancing the Stone” and 1951′s Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn classic “African Queen,” which the ride was loosely based on.
“We really wanted to build this fun romantic tension and banter between Frank and Lily,” said executive producer Hiram Garcia in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Emily is a smaller version of Dwayne. They both love to bust chops and play games.”
Some film critics so far have found “Jungle Cruise” derivative, but others lauded the sparkling chemistry among the main characters, with a 70 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating among 84 critics, as of Wednesday. Brian Lowry, CNN.com’s film critic, likened it to “a light-hearted adventure that owes as much to ‘The Mummy’ as anything in Disney’s fleet.” Brian Truitt of USA Today said the film “starts like gangbusters but can’t keep from wading into familiar waters.”
Success is hardly a slam dunk during this uncertain time, as the delta variant has driven a spike in COVID-19 cases. Disney hedged its bets by releasing this film simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ for an added $29.99.
“We wanted to give people the option given the pandemic,” Garcia said.
Nevertheless, the “Jungle Cruise” cast and producers were able to host a traditional red-carpet Hollywood screening earlier in the week at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, with a full theater of whooping fans.
“A theater is the ideal place to see this spectacle,” said Ramirez, the actor who plays one of Frank’s nemeses. “This is more than a movie. It’s an experience.” On top of that, “we’ve spent the last year and a half facing tremendous challenges. Those challenges are not over. This is an important movie to be presented to the world right now, a beautiful and healthy window of escape we desperately need these days.”
The $200 million budget film was produced partly in Hawaii, where they built an entire Brazilian village on a river and choreographed an elaborate submarine/boat chase. The bulk of the film was shot in Georgia, much of it on the backlots of Atlanta’s Blackhall Studios before the pandemic. This meant re-creating realistic jungle and cave scenes as well as an animatronic boat surrounded by green screens.
“Being on that boat was like being on a roller coaster,” said Whitehall, who is relatively unknown stateside. “All those scenes of us being thrown around and my character looking like he’s going to throw up? That was very real.”
And the summer Atlanta heat didn’t do Whitehall any favors because his snooty MacGregor character was dressed in fancy early 20th-century British garb in the jungle. “They were thick suits, cut for people in England,” he said. “I remember one particular day I had been to Fox Bros. Bar-B-Q in Atlanta and overindulged. The next day, I had a bad case of the meat sweats.”
Whitehall had never met fellow Brit Blunt until they did a screen test in New York in 2018. “We found out we lived in a similar area of London, our mums shared the same hairdresser, we became fast friends,” he said. “I feel honored to call her a friend.”
But Blunt knew very little about Johnson’s past. “I had to teach her quite a lot about his wrestling career,” Whitehall said. At one point, he demonstrated a signature Rock wrestling move on her called “The Rock Bottom.”
Johnson himself had yet to say hi to Whitehall at that point but saw “me Rock-Bottoming Mary Poppins,” he said, “which was quite the introduction.”
MacGregor also bonded with Frank’s pet jaguar Proxima, who was a pure CGI creation. On set, Whitehall had to interact with a guy named Ben who crawled around on all fours in a jaguar outfit. “A lot of my scenes involved stroking a man in a leotard, which I didn’t wholly unenjoy,” he said wryly.
Johnson has spent a majority of his working time in Atlanta in recent years. He has shot “Jumanji: The Next Level” with Kevin Hart, NBC’s reality competition show “The Titan Games,” NBC sitcom “Young Rock,” the upcoming Netflix action film “Red Notice” with Ryan Reynolds and Gal Galdot and the DC Comics superhero film “Black Adam,” which just wrapped.
“Atlanta has become a second home for us,” Garcia said. “We have particular restaurants we can have meetings at. We have shot on almost every stage in Atlanta. We have crew who have worked on several of our projects. We’ve seen their families grow up.”
WHERE TO WATCH
“Jungle Cruise,” out on Friday in theaters and Disney+ Premium for $29.99