2021 | rated PG-13 | starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Edgar Ramirez, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti | directed by Jaume Collet-Serra | 2 hrs 7 mins |
If you’re the Walt Disney Studio, you’re creatively bankrupt, you’re cannibalizing all of your theme park rides into cash grab movies, your “It’s A Small World” script is still being retrofitted with it’s female empowerment narrative and cut for the Chinese market, you’re next available popular theme park option – The Jungle Cruise – posses a challenge. How do you turn this charming ride that has been in the park as long as Pirates of the Caribbean, that millions of people have nostalgia for, into a bloated 2-hour plus movie? There are a handful of moments where the charm of the ride gets translated cleverly and several twists in the story that justify it’s length, but for the most part Jungle Cruise is way worse than it needs to be and grated on me like few big studio films have recently.
Signed to the project is director Jaume Collet-Serra, whose constant teaming with Liam Neeson has lead to a series of dudes, but in that wake he’s made some great movies – Orphan is one of the best studio thrillers of it’s decade, Non-Stop is a great little chamber film, Unknown is one of the best post-Taken Neeson action films and The Shallows is exactly the burns-quick-and-bright shark film that it needs to be. I say all that to say a filmmaker whose best known for bringing thin concepts to life gets quickly overwhelmed by the slippery, massive, leviathan elements required – and totally unnecessary – of this script. This movie is over-stuffed, overly plotted, over-edited and mis-directed at every level. This is a movie where snappy foot-chase action music plays over a sequence where two large boats slowly turn around in a harbor. Everything is out of sync and tonally off here.
Our first glance of The Jungle Cruise is kind of charming. We get an opening very much out of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie (or a Stephen Sommers Mummy movie) where the resourceful headstrong Dr. Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) races out of a male-only academic club with a priceless artifact while her posh English brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) stalls for time. It’s pre-WWI England. Women are kept out of academia and the Germans are traversing the globe seeking supernatural dominance. The artifact is going to point the way to a mythical tree with leaves that will cure all diseases and suffering, hidden somewhere in the Amazon. Which brings the Houghton siblings in the need of Skipper Frank (Dwayne Johnson), who pilots a small, rickety jungle cruise tourist trap through the Amazon. Powered by Disney ride puns and carnival tricks – because apparently the amazon jungle isn’t dangerous by itself – he swindles tourists. It’s a fun character, with his pension for elaborate theatrical trickery recalling what was so fun about the untrustable Jack Sparrow in it’s best moments.
The first act of this movie is one where it feels like it has a vision, that vision of a children’s movie, not a family film, where the jokes are puns and everything has a heightened cartoonish look to it. I’m all for it. Not every movie needs to appeal to the whole family. There is a charming old fashioned sound stage quality to the boats and the harbor. This cannot last for long as the movie is then immediately ripped apart and built by committee, adding in enough supernatural violence to get a commercially friendly PG-13 and an old silent movie recorder carried by Blunt’s character to create the impression that this movie is somehow an homage to the classic jungle adventures of the 30s. To that point, the basic structure of The Jungle Cruise is one big homage to The African Queen with Blunt in the Katherine Hepburn role, Johnson as Humphrey Bogart’s booze-swilling, devil-may-care captain in an attempt to recreate the battle-of-the-sexes relationship dynamics of the 40s, minus any chemistry or passion between the leads. Whitehall for his part is Teddy Roosevelt, the posh aristocrat who brings his dinner jacket to the cruise.
The film is timestamped with several increasingly absurd twists along the way. The curse, Johnson’s character, everything is given an elaborate, incredible backstory which serves more to over-pad the film and replace it’s charming set design with a bunch of artificial effects. The finale in which a German captain piloting a submarine down the Amazon (Jesse Plemons camping it up to the rafters) comes together with an ancient cursed monster Edgar Ramirez, Carlos) that commands snakes is a garish CGI nightmare almost designed to terrify and turn off anyone young ones charmed by it’s first half.
In the case of Jungle Cruise obvious comparisons to Pirates of the Caribbean are apt, not because it’s a Disney Ride movie but because it so liberally and obviously clones the first Pirates movie. Jungle Cruise could have just been a jungle adventure film. It didn’t need to have Nazi villains, an ancient curse, ruminations on immortality or a con man hero that is as Jack Sparrow-esque as the movie could have Dwayne Johnson get. None of this was necessary and a writer with more imagination would have found a way to make this movie into it’s own adventure. The film is bookended by the Boy’s Club sequences that is all so “Just because” it started making me wonder how little these filmmakers know about the era. Was there a reason these clubs sprung up in the first place? What demand in society were they serving? Did men and women have any spaces only to themselves and what would a movie about this era look like if it wasn’t so hapless about everything it presents and a 21st century screenwriter wasn’t dropping in characters with modern sensibilities into it?